Even before the game kicked off today, Sunderland had nothing to play for with Wigan's midweek loss against Arsenal ensuring their relegation. That was pretty lucky, considering that injuries, suspensions, recalls and drunken hijinks had all combined to leave Paolo Di Canio with just ten senior outfield players to play. With all of these starting, our bench looked worryingly inexperienced with reserve goalkeeper Keiren Westwood the only non-youth player on it. In fact, youngster Mandron was the only outfield player on the bench with any Premier League minutes to his name at all, and they comprised of just four minutes at the end of our mauling from Aston Villa a few weeks ago.
The first half was characterised by Sunderland sitting fairly deeply in a compact 4-4-2, and Spurs applying nearly all of the pressure. Tottenham were noticeably trying to make good use of their wide players, with the full-backs Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker playing extremely advanced as they tried to open gaps in Sunderland's defence via long diagonal cross-field balls. Sunderland barely managed to even get inside the Spurs half for the first twenty minutes, but despite Spurs having nearly all of the ball they had no real chances apart from several corners which came to nothing.
The first real point of note in the game came on twenty minutes. A rare Sunderland attack was followed by a rapid Tottenham counter-attack, and as Gareth Bale took the ball into the penalty area he went down under pressure from make-shift right back Seb Larsson. The Swede had been behind the Welshman, and was never going to catch up with him, and ended up forcing him down as he grabbed at him with both hands. A nervous wait followed as Andre Marriner blew his whistle, but much to the anger of Bale and the Spurs fans the referee, instead of pointing to the spot, decided to book the quadruple player of the year for diving. To be honest, even I was a bit surprised by this. On first look it had seemed to be a penalty, and the replays did nothing to change. I think Bale's reputation of being occasionally over-dramatic in the penalty area may have played against him here.
Sunderland's first real chance of the game came on the half hour mark. Wickham ran at the Spurs defence before playing a lovely through ball into Graham, the striker then put a low cross in for Wickham only to see the young "Playboy model"s shot saved by Lloris. It was a nice move, and it was good to see Wickham playing some nice passes and generally linking up well, something he would carry on doing throughout the match. After this Sunderland began to attack a little bit more, with McClean putting in a cross, and Wickham having another two shots, both of which were unfortunately blocked before they could even test Lloris in the Spurs goal.
A few minutes later McClean managed to get himself in the book for a wild and late tackle on Tom Huddlestone, but Bale's resultant freekick was saved fairly comfortably by Simon Mignolet. Just after this, Sunderland nearly undid all their hard defensive work so far when John O'Shea backwards header fell for Bale in the penalty area, with Mignolet out of his goal in no-man's land. Luckily good pressure from the Belgian Keeper meant that Bale couldn't quite managed to tip it around the post and in.
Throughout the whole half Spurs had built up patiently and applied a lot of pressure to the Sunderland defence, but ultimately the lads' makeshift managed to defend competently and Tottenham just could not find a way to get a goal. Indeed, the last chance before half time actually went to Sunderland, with Adam Johnson flinging in a freekick from the wide right, only to see it easily punched away by Lloris.
Straight after the break, there was more good work from Wickham. He first tried to play Graham in with a ball over the top of the Spurs defence, however the goal abstaining striker's effort was typically weak and went wide without troubling the Spurs keeper. Just a few minutes later Wickham successfully managed to rob the ball off a loitering Tom Huddlestone in the centre of the park, the young striker then played Danny Graham in nicely, but although his effort was an improvement on the last one, Hugo Lloris was still equal to it and managed to save the shot. The action moved down the other end, and Spurs were left feeling unlucky not to get a second penalty as Adebayor's shot appeared to be diverted by the arm of the falling Carlos Cuellar.
David Vaughan picked up his first booking of the match with a clumsy attempted block-cum-tackle on WW2 fighter pilot Lt. Scott E. Parker. It was late and pointless, and a deserved yellow card for the E.T. lookalike. Spurs continued to fruitlessly create chances as they began to win an increasing number of corners and freekicks around the Sunderland box.
The visitors were particularly lucky when, just after the hour, Mignolet dropped a cross yet somehow Jack Colback managed to produce two stunning goal-line clearances to keep the game level. Seeing it live I was convinced Spurs had managed to score both times; it really was amazing work from Sunderland's Jack-of-all-trades to keep the ball out of the net.
In an effort to try and get the three points they desperately needed for Champions League qualification, Andre Villas-Boas subbed off Parker for Mousa Dembele. The Belgian midfielder certainly looked a lot more energetic when he came on, and Spurs began really cranking up the pressure. More and more chances were created, with Lennon especially looking dangerous as he tried time and again to wriggle his way into the box from out wide.
However, with the North Londoners still unable to get a goal, the husky voiced Portuguese rolled the dice again and brought seasoned goal-snaffler Jermain Defoe on for doe-eyed American Clint Dempsey. At the same time, Paolo Di Canio decided to turn to some of the boy scouts occupying the Sunderland bench alongside him and brought youngster Mikael Mandron and Billy Knott on for Danny Graham and James McClean. It would have been nice to see how this pair did, but we were denied that opportunity when just seconds later David Vaughan put in a similar challenge to the that had earned him his first booking. Andre Marriner quite rightly showed the Welshman a second yellow card, and he was left to trudge disconsolately from the pitch. This forced the Sunderland team to be shuffled around, with Knott moving into central midfield and Mandron onto the left wing. Mandron's inexperience in this position was shown a few minutes later when he earned a yellow card for a clumsy late tackle on Bale.
Before the red card the game had mostly been Spurs, but afterwards they entirely dominated the match. Villas-Boas brought Gylfi Sigurdsson on for Benoit Assou-Ekotto as his side searched desperately for a winner, whilst Di Canio took Wickham off after a promising performance, and in his place brought on Adam Mitchell - a young winger. Mitchell, put on the left wing with Mandron moving alone up front, was at the centre of the game's final act. From nothing, on Spurs' right flank, Bale ran at the youngster; Mitchell tried to show Bale onto his weaker right foot, but Bale simply outpaced him, took the ball inside and unleashed a fierce shot that went straight into the top corner of Simon Mignolet's net. The goal was almost a carbon copy of the one Bale scored a few weeks ago against Southampton at a very similar time in a very similar game. Sometimes you just cannot legislate for sheer individual brilliance.
After that both sides new the jig was up, Sunderland never looked likely to get an equaliser and 1-0 was how the game ended. Ultimately it was a solid and dogged, if uninspiring, defensive performance from Sunderland. For a while it genuinely looked like Spurs would not be able to find a way past the makeshift back four, but eventually Bale's quality showed and he won it for his side.
Sunderland at least looked competent today which was an improvement on previous matches. Colback put in another solid performance, with a couple of brilliant blocks preventing the home side from scoring earlier, and Connor Wickham looked very good up front - which is hopeful for next season. But, like so many times this season, we lost in the end. Let's all just forget about 2012/13 now, eh?
We'll have more match reaction in our Match Stream, which you can find HERE.