Gareth Bale collected possession in the last minute, he jinked inside, rolling the ball on to his left foot and unfurled a glorious shot into the far, top corner from 25 yards. Under normal circumstances, Bale's goal, his 26th of a stellar season, would have been the cause for frenzied celebration. Not here. It did not matter.
The victory propelled Tottenham to 72 points, a Premier League record for the club. They have finished in the top five for the fourth consecutive season. And they have qualified for Europe. There has been lots to like about André Villas-Boas's debut season at White Hart Lane. Yet it rang hollow. The post-match lap of appreciation featured forced smiles and heavy hearts. None of it was enough for the European qualification that they really wanted.
Arsenal did what they had to do at Newcastle United. Tottenham's old foes got the victory that they needed to render everything academic here, not only Bale's winner but the denial of two Tottenham penalty appeals and the latest white knuckle ride of the White Hart Lane crowd. Tottenham have not had a penalty all season. They have not had one in the league at this stadium since April 2011. It did not matter.
Tottenham are scarred by the memories of last-day agonies past and now they have something from the present. It had been lost on nobody that Arsène Wenger's Arsenal finish above Tottenham. That is what they do but the throbbing atmosphere had been underpinned by the yearning for something, anything to conspire to make things different.
Villas-Boas simply wanted to see his team do their job, to finish what has been an encouraging season with the record points tally. The emotions churned inside him and they erupted upon the first penalty controversy in the 19th minute.
Bale had the jump on Sebastian Larsson, the former Arsenal player, following Tom Huddlestone's through ball, and when he tore into the box, he felt his opponent's arm in his back. Bale went down and when the referee, Andre Marriner, blew his whistle and raced towards the scene, it felt as though he had awarded the penalty. He had not. To Tottenham's anguish, the man wearing red ruled that Bale had faked it. For the fifth time this season, and the fourth in the Premier League, the triple player of the year saw yellow for simulation. Villas-Boas went crackers, and not for the last time.
Tottenham controlled the first half, even though Danny Graham created an excellent opportunity for Connor Wickham on 31 minutes: Hugo Lloris's block at close quarters was vital. Villas-Boas's team had tempo and aggression, and they flickered in the final third.
Tottenham's big chance of the first half fell to Bale, following Aaron Lennon's cut-back, but as the crowd held its breath, he did not make a clean connection with his left foot, which is not something that has been said too often this season. His shot hit Jack Colback, possibly on the arm but this time, there was rather less contention.
Marriner and his officials, though, ensured their hot reception at the interval when they ruled that Bale was offside following John O'Shea's loose back header. There was an argument that O'Shea had triggered a second phase of play but Simon Mignolet saved anyway from Bale. The language from the stands towards Marriner at half-time was choice.
Sunderland were riddled by injuries, they had midfielders in the full-back positions and a grand total of five minutes of first-team experience among their outfield substitutes. They ought to have been there for the taking but they had another glorious chance to take the lead early in the second-half. Wickham caught Huddlestone dallying in possession and fed Graham, who beat Michael Dawson and struck low and hard. Lloris made a reflex block.
The sense of grievance was heavy in the air and it deepened upon the second non-penalty award. After Emmanuel Adebayor had spun and shot, Carlos Cuellar, diving low to his right, made the save. Cuellar, of course, is not the Sunderland goalkeeper. Villas-Boas was incandescent.
Then Arsenal scored at Newcastle. The Sunderland fans chanted "One-nil to the Arsenal," and the atmosphere was sapped. Further evidence that it might not be Tottenham's day came when Clint Dempsey saw a shot smuggled to safety by Colback on the line and from the rebound Lennon's shot deflected off Colback, hit the post and squirmed to safety. From a Tottenham point of view, it was excruciating.
There was the obligatory false alarm of a Newcastle equaliser – the surge of delight quickly dissipated – and the general edginess was reflected in Scott Parker, who was visibly fuming to be substituted and he avoided eye contact with Villas-Boas.
Sunderland were reduced to 10 men in the 74th minute when David Vaughan hacked at Lennon for the second time in the second half but Tottenham looked ready to fizzle out. Bale refocused them and, all of a sudden, there was Adebayor asking fans in the stands for the score from Newcastle. There were nervous looks at phones. The miracle, though, did not come.