THE ARRIVAL of the Sunderland team sheet at White Hart Lane did not make healthy reading.
Two midfielders at full-back, two strikers who hadn’t scored a Premier League goal between them for Sunderland this season and a bench composed of juveniles.
Yet appearances proved deceptive.
Yes, Tottenham monopolised possession and had two strong claims for a penalty which referee Andre Marriner somehow ignored.
But it wasn’t until midway through the second half when Jack Colback twice cleared off the line that the hosts significantly threatened to break the deadlock.
Against the run of play, it was actually Sunderland who created the best of the opportunities in the opening hour when Connor Wickham and then Danny Graham drew smart saves out of Hugo Lloris.
Even when David Vaughan was dismissed for a second yellow card with 15 minutes to go, it took a last-gasp moment of brilliance from Gareth Bale to beat Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet.
Carlos Cuellar, at the heart of Sunderland’s defensive resilience, believes Paolo Di Canio’s strategy was an ideal one, given the paucity of options at his disposal.
“I think the tactical plan was nearly perfect,” said the centre-half.
“Everyone felt comfortable and everyone helped each other with communication.
“There were no moments where Tottenham were left one-on-one.
“But the way we approached the game, nobody was thinking ‘it’s just the last game, we can relax’.
“We wanted to work hard and win the game.
“But sometimes, it’s an unbelievable goal that they score.
“We were defending very well and tried to play on the counter-attack.
“We know that’s difficult because they have great pace up front and you can’t leave any gaps. But the movement of the team’ and how we approached the game tactically, was very good.
“We know we’ve got good quality and good players. We knew it was going to be tough at Spurs, but we felt comfortable in the way we were defending.”
Although Cuellar displays a rueful smile at the quality of Bale’s winner, the Spaniard says it couldn’t mask Sunderland’s dejection at conceding so late in the game.
The 31-year-old added: “It’s very disappointing because, in the last minute, Bale gets to shoot from so far out and scores an unbelievable goal.
“We could have avoided that situation and prevent him shooting from there.
“It was tough at that moment because we were playing with 10 men, but defending well.
“But’ in the end, they’ve scored from such a long distance.
“To finish the league away from home with a point at Tottenham would have been good.
“But when you lose, it doesn’t matter how good the performance is, you can never be happy.
“We were really close to a point.”