LONDON // If Andre Villas-Boas has done nothing else in his season in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, he has at least undermined the idea that Spurs are mentally weak and do not know how to win ugly.
This was as ground-out as victories come. Spurs were poor, desperately so at times; they did not manage a shot on target for 85 minutes. With a draw looking likely, Gareth Bale, a former Southampton player, picked up the ball on the right touchline, darted infield and, from 25 yards, crashed a shot just inside the far post.
"He's a player in a moment of outstanding form, scoring goals out of nowhere," said Villas-Boas, the Spurs manager.
"He has great ability and he's really enjoying his football. He had a difficult game in the beginning; he couldn't find space and we were trying a lot of long balls. In the second half we managed to find him a little bit better. That was the one moment they left him."
Mauricio Pochettino, the Southampton manager, had insisted before the game that Spurs are not a one man team.
"Maybe I made a mistake," he said with a smile. "We didn't deserve to lose today but one special, amazing moment from Bale changed the game. He could play in any team in the world and in any league in the world.
"He's one of the top 10 footballers in the world today but perhaps not at the level of Messi or Maradona."
By any normal measure, it was a brilliant goal. By Bale's exceptional standards, it was merely typical.
As he had against Manchester City in the previous home game, he took a game that was slipping away from Spurs and wrenched it in their favour.
The Wales international's successes in both the players' and the football writers' Player of the Year polls had prompted much talk about what the awards should recognise.
If it is down to impact on his team, to what his side would lose if he weren't there, Bale is without question a worthy winner. It was his 20th Premier League goal of the season; only Jurgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham have bettered that for Spurs.
The speed with which Pochettino has instilled his pressing game since arriving in January has been remarkable. Southampton pressed superbly, not just working hard but playing with great intelligence and discipline, frustrating Spurs.
It was a strangely flat first-half, perhaps because a chemical spill on the M25 motorway led to a large number of fans arriving late. The only chance of note fell to Southampton. Hugo Lloris made a fine save diving low to his left to turn Rickie Lambert's free kick onto the post.
Lloris also had to save well in the second half, denying Adam Lallana at his near post.
Southampton's failure to take a point could prove costly. A run of six games without a defeat created a sense that they were safe but successive defeats have left them just four points above the drop zone.
"We have to win one more game, against Sunderland next weekend," Pochettino said. "But I'm an optimist and if I see how my team played today then I'm not scared at all."
Spurs did gradually begin to exert some pressure as the game neared its conclusion, and probably should have had a penalty when Jack Cork clipped Bale.
It was a game easy to imagine drifting to stalemate and, in previous years, it probably would have done. But this is a Tottenham side who have found a resolve and, in Bale, it has a player capable of turning any match.
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