Gareth Bale was once again a major talking point as a resilient Tottenham Hotspur narrowly conquered a spirited Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light.
The confidence the hosts had gained from Wednesday's win over Manchester City was clear from the outset and was epitomised by a fancy interchange between Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher in the first half. It was something the crowd appreciated and proved just how things have changed both on the pitch and in the stands.
They took the lead, too. While Spurs, with all their pace, were capable of the most potent counter-attacks, it was a break from the hosts that saw Sunderland gain a dangerous free-kick and from it the opening goal. John O'Shea was the quickest to react after Hugo Lloris brilliantly denied Steven Fletcher.
It was just reward for their pressure, but for Spurs assistant Steffen Freund it was time to get serious. The bad cop to Villas-Boas' softer, single-handed conductor approach, his frantic clapping and demand for Spurs players to raise their game through rudimentary hand signals made sure that they never lost their focus.
On the stroke of half-time came the first major discussion point. An obvious dive from Jermain Defoe brought no sanction from the referee but unanimous jeers from the home support. Contrast that with the booking for Gareth Bale ten minutes from time for what seemed a more legitimate fall, and the diving debate in English football still seems some distance from a conclusion.
The conjecture on both situations continued into the press room, Andre Villas-Boas describing referee Martin Atkinson's decision to book Bale as "a difficult decision but a big mistake". It rules the Welshman out of Spurs' next encounter, against Reading, after accumulating five yellow cards; three of those were accrued for perceived dives.
Villas-Boas explained that the club had met with Premier League referees prior to the start of the season, as well as earlier this month, with the reputation of Gareth Bale a major talking point. "I think he [Bale] understands it is difficult for the refs to judge," he said. "Today it was a mistake and I think the team gets penalised for the game against Reading."
Villas-Boas was asked if the constant speculation over Bale and simulation was becoming tiresome. "The questions come from you," he replied, trying to diffuse the situation with a dose of humour.
As the second half commenced, Spurs advanced. Now playing some ten yards higher up the field, the change brought early results. Pinning Sunderland back instead of inviting them on, a devilish cross from a corner suckered Carlos Cuellar into heading it past a surprised Mignolet. Villas-Boas remained in his chair, his celebrations muted. The job thus far was only half complete.
That would change just three minutes later. This time it was Aaron Lennon who pounced on a loose ball before skipping past John O'Shea and calmly sidefooting the ball into the net. Now the Spurs manager could bask in the celebrations with his coaching staff, who all rushed from the dugout in unison. In the wake of the goal, and amid discussions on how to managers should interact with referees and their assistants during matches, both Villas-Boas and Freund showed that a smile and relaxed tone tends to garner the best results.
After the goal Sunderland tried valiantly to earn a draw but left themselves exposed on the break as a consequence. Emmanuel Adebayor was guilty of missing a simple chance late on while Defoe also should have scored. For the home side, Stephane Sessegnon's personal battle with Michael Dawson kept the visiting defender under constant threat. Booked with 20 minutes remaining, every time Dawson fouled the diminutive forward O'Neill took umbrage with Atkinson's decision not to show a second yellow card.
As the game ticked away, the reason for selecting Dawson ahead Jan Vertonghen became apparent as the defender threw his body in the way of several Sunderland attacks. The final whistle brought muted appreciation from the home crowd at their side's best efforts to take something from the game.
Along with a handshake from Villas-Boas , O'Neill also received the unfortunate news that Danny Rose - on loan to Sunderland from the North London club - will not be sold to the Wearsiders. "Permanent is completely impossible," Villas-Boas revealed. "We have big expectations for the player. There is a high possibility his loan spell will continue, but we appreciate what he has been doing."
O'Neill's response to the declaration proved that hope springs eternal. "There's lot of things can happen - if we put an offer of £38 million in I think he would taxi him up here," he joked.