Spurs continue to light the way
When Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp claimed his side could win this season's Premier League title last July, patronising chuckles were thrust in his direction from all quarters.
The league's established elite have long viewed Spurs as little more than a bunch of flaky show boaters whose bark was far more potent than their bite, yet the year that will come to a close next weekend has seen Redknapp and his troops banish many of the ancient cracks in their make up.
In beating the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool with convincing displays in 2010 and also confirming their quality with impressive performances in their debut Champions League campaign, belief has flooded through the Tottenham dressing room like never before and this penultimate game of the year served to cement the view that Redknapp's multi-talented squad might just emerge as title dark horses after all.
Reduced to ten men after 28 minutes as Jermain Defoe was sent off for what referee Martin Atkinson incorrectly viewed as an elbow on James Collins, the visitors proceeded to offer up a display that the Tottenham of old would never have mustered, as they mixed quality and grit with equal measure to secure three valuable points.
Spurs' triumph was undoubtedly aided by an increasingly limp Villa side that are refusing to respond to Gerard Houllier's touchline promptings, yet this was a night when it seemed more appropriate to lavish praise rather than scorn as Redknapp's men turned on the style to seal a deserved victory.
Two quality goals from the brilliant Rafael van der Vaart were enough to give Spurs the Boxing Day victory they fully deserved and while Villa offered a late flourish thanks to a fortunate 82nd minute Mark Albrighton goal, anything less than three points for the North Londoners would have been an injustice.
It was almost as if Tottenham set out to make a statement that their seat on the top table of the Premier League table is permanent, once Defoe was ordered from the pitch, as the 15 minutes of controlled passing they put together in what was left of the first half was impressive in every sense of the word.
Arsenal have long been hailed as the side whose passing football is second to none in this league, but their claims to that particular title were threatened by their local rivals who barely allowed Villa a taste of the ball as they passed them off the park with arrogant class. The likes of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Alan Hutton and Wilson Palacios joined forced with established playmakers Luka Modric, Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale in running rings around a befuddled Villa.
It was only natural that Spurs were a little less assured in the second half as fatigue threatened to unhinge their master class, but their second, majestic goal added gloss to the performance.
With Bale breaking at pace and Aaron Lennon offering the attacking support, Van der Vaart arrived on the scene late to finish off the move he had started after 67 minutes. It was a world class, counter attacking goal constructed by three quality operators and Redknapp was suitably glowing as he met the media to toast his latest triumph.
"That was an excellent performance," stated a red faced Redknapp, who had clearly been warmed by his side's display on a freezing night in Birmingham. "Our second goal was top class and the quality we showed to hold onto the ball with ten men and pick up a great win away from home was exceptional.
"I've said time and again that this side are good enough to beat anyone in this division and performance like this show how far we have come. We fought fantastically at the end and I thought Peter Crouch was immense for us in defence when I threw him on for the final few minutes. He headed everything out of our box and I don't think anyone could deny that we deserved the win."
The muted atmosphere around Villa Park on this frozen Boxing Day evening confirmed that large chunks of the Holt End faithful have yet to warm to the presence of Houllier on the touchline and defeats like this against opponents reduced to ten men will do little to win over the unconvinced masses.
A healthy band of the Villa faithful, and many more in the media fraternity, dismissed Houllier as yesterday's man long before he was offered an unlikely route back into the Premier League back in September, with his emotional reaction as he returned to former club Liverpool a few weeks back turning plenty more against him.
Reports of dressing room discontent and the omission of fan favourites like Richard Dunne have done little to win Houllier favour and he will need to show he still has what it takes when the transfer window creaks open next weekend. However, he was forced to concede his side were well beaten on this occasion.
"We only have ourselves to blame for the two mistakes we made to give them goals," he said. "I don't think this was a poor performance, but clearly we should have come back strong when we were playing against ten men for so long. We have to work hard to improve."
It's all too easy to find fault in this sport we all love at times, yet the season of good will is upon us and that is as good an excuse as any to hail the achievements of a team and a manager who have done more to light up England's top flight this year than any other.
After many a year of monotony in the top four places at the top of the Premier League, Redknapp and Spurs may just have claimed the titles of manager and team of year after offering a breath of much needed air to the top tier of the game. Their fans have every right to dream as 2011 dawns.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Rafael van der Vaart
The signing of this Premier League season added to his reputation with another classy display that was complimented by two clinically taken goals. He is a dream for all managers on ESPNsoccernet's Fantasy Football game.
MODRIC MAGIC: Van der Vaart and Hutton took the plaudits as taker and creator of Tottenham's fine opener, but little Luka Modric deserved his share of the praise for a stunning pass that created the opening. It was a touch of class from the Croatian.
REFEREE MADNESS: It was not just the red card offered up to Defoe that confirmed referee Martin Atkinson was suffering from a Christmas Day hangover as he threw around yellow cards aplenty for challenges that were not worthy of punishment. Alan Hutton's booking late on was a farce as the officials made far too many mistakes. "The referee had a bad night tonight," was the verdict of Spurs boss Redknapp.
VILLA VERDICT: These are worrying times at Villa Park. Houllier is offering little in the way of inspiration on or off the pitch and the team look like relegation candidates in the making. Big improvements need to be made or the panic button may soon be pushed at this great club.
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Redknapp's side have paved the way for a new look Premier League hierarchy and they are ending the year that put this club back on the map in the grand manner.