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May 4, 2013

Man-of-the-moment Bale delivers on cue

There were those who argued with Gareth Bale's winning of three honours last week. The Suarez sympathisers and the Van Persie partisans were wrong, the players and the writers right: there is simply no-one in the English game who can conjure what Bale can.

While Tottenham have Bale, they will always have hope. A driving run into the heart of Southampton's defence and a thrashing drive kept Spurs in the hunt for the Champions League. It is a stage that a player like Bale must be allowed to grace. He is determined to reach it.

White Hart Lane is the most atmospheric Premier League ground in London, but that atmosphere was febrile, anxious and angry. The freshness looked gone, resources stretched too thinly. Southampton had outfought Spurs, impressing with energy and danger. Saints' muscle had dominated the first 75 minutes. Spurs were a mass of contradictions, their fluency disrupted, their fans loudly agonising over missed passes and poor decision-making.

• Rann: Epic Bale - Saints stutter
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The modern psychology of Spurs is no longer that of a glory game. Glory is squandered when nerves and mishap get the better of them. The players and the managers change but the end result is the same: disappointment snatched from expectation. Yet Bale can be their garlander of glory. If every Spurs player were like him – or even shared his self-belief – their trophy cabinet would brim with silverware. He backs himself; he is dragging his team-mates in his wake.

"A great moment of individual brilliance," Andre Villas-Boas said of the winning goal. "It was the split-second they had not allowed to Gareth all game. The player is in a moment of outstanding form, scoring great goals out of nowhere."

The conclusion to the battle for the Premier League's top four can live up to the excitement of the Championship's positively lunatic final day. London's trio of hopefuls are on a collision course. Spurs are relying on a Sunday favour from Manchester United and require Arsenal's recent resolve to fade, but a win at Chelsea would place destiny firmly in their hands.

Bale was always supposed to be the central figure against his former club yet took considerable time – a quarter of an hour - to get his first touch of the ball. He took until the end of the first half to have his first shot. A driving run forced a save at the near post by Artur Boruc, and his heading over of a corner was the last action of the 45. With Bale so quiet, Spurs were listless, lurching towards another seemingly inevitable disappointment.

The return of Aaron Lennon should have given Southampton more to worry about but the right winger could not last past the hour. He had done little in the game when substituted. As Emmanuel Adebayor came on, Lennon tottered straight down the tunnel, his gesture to an attendant suggesting he had strained a muscle.

Mousa Dembele's recovery was equally welcome yet even more brief. He looked to have suffered a recurrence of the hamstring problem that kept him out at Wigan. With Scott Parker also absent, Tom Huddlestone assumed an unfamiliar responsibility in midfield. He is the classic stroller, and a lack of mobility led to him being overrun by Southampton's pesky pressers. Sandro, injured at Loftus Road in January, has been sorely missed. Had he and Younes Kaboul been available more often, Spurs' tension might not be so pronounced.

Southampton had shown why they should stay up, even though Wigan's result pulls them back into the reckoning. Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez have both been mentioned as possible England players as a result of some stylish finishing, but their work ethic was apparent here. They defended from the front with zest; Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen were rarely allowed time to play from the back. Nathaniel Clyne, one of a pair of fast-raiding full-backs with the precocious Luke Shaw, might have put Saints in front when busting though to shoot just wide in the 11th minute.

In the 37th minute, Lambert's low free-kick drive was glanced onto the post by Hugo Lloris and the rebound found its way to Steven Davis, whose header was straight at the fortunate Frenchman.

Mauricio Pochettino and Villas-Boas had enjoyed a long and cordial chat ahead of a match delayed for half an hour by traffic chaos on the M25, London's orbital route. They share a similar approach to the game: their teams press opponents hard, and break with pace. The Argentine looked to have got the better of the Portuguese. His touchline style is even more frantic than his counterpart. Where Villas-Boas paces, whistles and cajoles, Pochettino bellows and bounces, appealing every refereeing decision with invective.

The two sets of fans share a common anthem too. When the Spurs/Saints Go Marching On provided a deafening anthem for the early exchanges.

"This is the Emirates" teased the visiting fans, perhaps made louder by their extra 30 minutes of drinking time. They have delighted in their first Premier League season since 2005, and that eight years has been tumultuous - bankrupt, relegated again, but now likely to stay up having been promoted in two successive seasons. Their team hardly deserved to lose, but suffered the consequence of being confronted by genius.

"One special, amazing moment from Gareth Bale and it all goes out of the window," Pochettino reflected. "He could play in any team in the world, in any league in the world."

Saintly energy faded and, with it, Bale's influence grew. He went down under a Jack Cork challenge in the penalty area but referee Mark Clattenburg waved away the claim. It was the second time he had waved play on when Bale had hit the deck. Perhaps the Welsh wizard's reputation for trickery precedes him. But, then, so does a reputation for brilliance.

If Spurs really are a one-man team, they could ask for no better Premier League player to be that man.

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