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Apr 7, 2013

Ghosts of the past threaten to haunt Spurs

Blowing it, bottling it, letting it slip. Tired, weary, running out of legs. These are familiar refrains among the anxiety support group that affiliates itself with Tottenham Hotspur.

If Everton had defended the lead that Kevin Mirallas' solo goal had given them, they would have been within three points of Spurs, with a game in hand and Arsenal and Chelsea still to play. What has long looked like an all-London battle for Champions League qualification nearly had a Scouse usurper muscling in.

• O'Farrell: Events at the Lane

Gylfi Sigurdsson's late equaliser kept Everton at arm's length but still had Spurs waiting on events from Stamford Bridge after Arsenal's win at West Brom. The news was not positive. Unbearable tension will continue for five weeks yet. Can Spurs take heart from what was most definitely an escape?

"The reality is that Arsenal feel they finish the season strong," Andre Villas-Boas said. "We don't try to look at the ghosts in the past."

Andre Villas-Boas' public utterances rarely betray worry. His tenure at Tottenham suggests he has mastered the art of saying much while revealing nothing. However, his pitch-side demeanour suggests otherwise. He is a bag of nerves on the bench. While assistant head coach Steffen Freund converts his hyperactivity into Teutonic cheerleader mode, the boss is fidgety, always on the balls of his feet, often muttering to himself and usually barking instructions at his players.

Villas-Boas has guided his team through the harshest of winters to within striking distance of the Champions League and perhaps Europa League glory too. To surrender all that just as spring belatedly arrives would be a felling psychological blow. He has gone a considerable distance in restoring his reputation after falling victim to the feudal system at Chelsea. Failure now would bring the doubters back out in force.

He had understandable grounds for concern, and especially in the absence of Gareth Bale, whose ankle injury will keep him out until the Manchester City game in a fortnight. Tottenham chose to spread creative responsibility among three attacking midfielders in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Lewis Holtby. Three could not match the power of one.

Johnny Heitinga, playing as a defensive midfielder, was gobbling up their territory right until the dying moments. David Moyes might remind that he was without his stars too, with Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar completing suspensions.

The continuing absence of Jermain Defoe meant Spurs had to get a proper spin from lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor, and he delivered as quickly as he possibly could.

As Everton kicked off, the Togolese enigma was only just making his way onto the field, wiping away some water he had sprayed on his face. Thirty-five seconds later, he was at the back post, slotting in Jan Vertonghen's cross to grab the lead.

Vertonghen has had a hugely impressive first season at Tottenham, though perhaps more often as an attacking force than a defender. He played at left-back here and was his team's most dangerous weapon for much of the first half yet, when Everton equalised, he was the guilty party.

Phil Jagielka's header from Leighton Baines' corner also found Hugo Lloris wanting after the England centre half had climbed all over Verthongen. The high tension line could resume. It swiftly became a game with real edge. Tackles were snapped into, refereeing decisions were harangued, and neither team enjoyed anything like comfortable possession. It was thrilling, end-to-end stuff and it remained that way throughout.

Spurs' tetchiness was evidenced when Kyle Walker wildly punched a ball that was heading out of play. Like Vertonghen, he was offering width down his flank where his battle with Baines offered an exciting glimpse of two of the best full-backs around one on one. Walker's skilful and athletic contribution to the second equaliser eventually handed him victory in the side-contest.

Kevin Mirallas had given a preview of his ability to turn Spurs' defence a minute before his goal. That time, his cross was hurriedly cleared. Now, just as against Stoke last week, he surged deep into enemy territory, turning Vertonghen inside out before drilling his shot past Lloris, who was offered little chance to save. The latest famous Belgian in the Premier League can be truly electrifying. Moyes might wonder how much further up the table his team might be if Mirallas had been able to stay fit more often.

"Kevin scored a Gareth Bale goal, though maybe Gareth's been scoring Kevin Mirallas goals," the Everton manager joked.

Villas-Boas became a constant presence on the sidelines. As their manager paced up and down, Spurs upped their efforts. Half-chances came and went. Adebayor's shot was palmed away by Tim Howard; Dempsey drifted another wide. Villas-Boas stamped his foot in anger after Walker committed an unnecessary foul in Everton's half. Through-balls from Holtby and Sigurdsson failed to find Adebayor. The lone striker was working hard, but little was coming off. Eventually, Mousa Dembele, looking dog-tired, was replaced by Tom Huddlestone, and the Afro-man's long passing game eventually made a difference.

Meanwhile, Everton were making chances from the extra space offered by Spurs' increasing frenzy. Twice, Victor Anichebe drilled powerful shots wide of goal. Everton came very close to completely burying Tottenham. However, David Moyes offered few regrets.

"We're playing a good team," he said. "We've taken four points from Spurs this season. We're trying to hang in there. I knew if we won we could get right in the mix. What does a draw do? It shows that Everton are a great team."

Walker's run, Dempsey's dummy, Adebayor's shot off the post and Sigurdsson's bundle home: these were the elements to bring Spurs back to life. There was still time for Anichebe to go through on goal but Lloris' pace smothered the Nigerian's golden chance for a winner.

"Everton have the toughest calendar and we have the second worst calendar, with City and Chelsea to play," said Villas-Boas. "It could go down to the wire."

He reflected a sense of partial relief for Tottenham. There are six games of yet greater tension to come.

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