x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Gareth Bale magic is not enough for Tottenham Hotspur

Welshman scores another wonder goal but Arsenal pip Tottenham to fourth spot.

Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, below, stopped Tottenham’s Gareth Bale this time but Bale would score later on.
Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, below, stopped Tottenham’s Gareth Bale this time but Bale would score later on.

LONDON // TypicalTottenham. Once that would have meant a flaky collapse or buckling when the pressure was on. These days, it means a battling performance and a win sealed in the closing minutes by a brilliant goal from Gareth Bale.

It wasn't enough, though, since Arsenal's win at Newcastle meant they took the fourth Champions League qualifying spot.

So Tottenham finish fifth, one place worse than they did last season. Andre Villas-Boas's critics will use that as a stick with which to beat him, but Spurs collected three more points this season that they did last, and no side in a 20-team Premier League has ever achieved more than the 72 points they amassed and failed to finish in the top four.

"We would have ideally achieved the fourth spot, we did enough to deserve it," said Villas-Boas. "But in the end, moving forward is where we want to be."

After the departures of last summer - Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart, Vedran Corluka, Niko Kranjcar and Ledley King all leaving - there is a sense of a new team coming together, and if Bale stays, there is no reason they cannot improve next season.

In the end, Champions League football was lost in the back-to-back defeats that followed the victory over Arsenal in March - had they signed another forward in January, who knows what might have been possible.

Still, this wasn't a capitulation: Spurs took 18 points from their final eight games; it's just that Arsenal were relentless.

The big question, of course, is whether Bale will stay - Villas-Boas was adamant that he will. "If you want to develop the team, you have to keep hold of your best assets," he said.

Bale is importance to Spurs - not that it was in doubt after a year in which he was named Players' and Football Writers' Player of the Year, which was underlined again Sunderland.

At times, it seemed a straight fight between Bale and Sunderland's Simon Mignolet - comfortably their player of the season - a contest Bale eventually won with yet another trademark goal. Drifting in from the left with a little over a minute remaining, he thrashed a shot into the top corner from 25 yards.

That ended a siege that Sunderland had, improbably, seemed capable of withstanding. Their goal had been pounded with shot after shot, but Mignolet stood firm and defenders, admirably committed given how little was riding on the game for Sunderland, hurled themselves into blocks.

Twice Spurs should have had penalties.

The first came in the first half when Sebastian Larsson pulled at Bale's sleeve, an incident that, absurdly, earned the Wales international a booking for diving - his second of the season and the third of his career against Sunderland.

The second was even more ludicrous, with Carlos Cuellar slipping as he charged down a shot from Emmanuel Adebayor and beating the ball away with his hands.

Jack Colback cleared off the line from Scott Parker and then deflected Aaron Lennon's follow-up against the post, but after David Vaughan had become the third Sunderland player sent off in Paolo Di Canio's seven games in charge, the waves of Spurs pressure became intolerable.

Bale, at times, seems almost to be awaiting his moment, scoring his best goals at the moments of the highest possible drama. It brought another victory and a record points tally - but not Champions League qualification.