Downed but not out - Tottenham finally lose but are still better suited than ever to continue their Champions League charge

Spurs' 11-game unbeaten run came to an end in controversial circumstances at Stoke City, but a rejuvenated Luka Modric and a simple Christmas fixture list make them top-four certs
By Nick Price at the Britannia Stadium

"It was the most blatant handball you'll ever see," said Harry Redknapp after Tottenham's unbeaten run was brought to an end by Stoke City in a game that saw Emmanuel Adebayor have a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for offside just moments after Ryan Shawcross had illegally cleared a Younes Kaboul shot clear off the line.

It was a moment that summed up Tottenham's day. Sometimes officials miss the obvious amid chaos, sometimes goalkeepers pull off wonder saves, sometimes strikers miss sitters – sometimes you just don't get what you deserve.

Tottenham thoroughly deserved to come away from the Britannia Stadium – where Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have all failed to win this season, not that that will be much solace for Spurs fans – with more than just bumps, bruises and a whole lot of frustration.

Referee Chris Foy and his team of officials failed to spot or chose to ignore at least one blatant penalty, one of which wound Kaboul up so much that he recoiled in revulsion at its ridiculousness, earning the first of his two yellow cards by airing his frustration at the officials, while Peter Crouch appeared to handle the ball before rolling it to Matthew Etherington to open the scoring.

There was also a case to be made that former Lilywhite Jonathan Woodgate should have been dismissed in the first half as he continued to make some ungainly fouls despite having already been cautioned.

Even the most ardent of Stoke fans would struggle to deny that their team got more than a fistful of luck from the officials in a game that, on balance, was fairly and evenly contested, the hosts making their early dominance pay with two goals that epitomised their – often pathetically derided by priggish football snobs – direct style, before Tottenham hit back after the break.

Crouching Peter, hidden handball | Striker appeared to handle in build up to first goal

Redknapp had no qualms with going into half-time two goals down, telling reporters that his side deserved nothing from an opening 45 minutes in which they were squeezed and smothered, not allowed to play their smooth passing style by their adept and aggressive opponents.

But the second period was different, and embodied the confidence and growing maturity that has been so typical of Tottenham since their August battering at the hands of Manchester City.

Off came the over-ran Benoit Assou-Ekotto and the blind-alley chasing Aaron Lennon, with Sebastien Bassong and Jermain Defoe introduced as Redknapp plumped for three at the back with Kyle Walker and Gareth Bale taking a flank each, penning Stoke's wingers back, and two up top, while Luka Modric dropped deeper to hatch attacking plots.

The Croat was sublime at times in the second half, and it was he who drew an admittedly soft penalty from Glenn Whelan with a burst into the box followed by a dance on the ball that had the Irishman kicking air and brushing shins. The midfield magician had attempted to force through a transfer to Chelsea over the summer, but his performance at the Brit suggested that his head is no longer elsewhere.
Tottenham's festive fixtures
Sunderland (H)
22/12 Chelsea (H)
27/12 Norwich City (A)
31/12 Swansea City (A)
03/01 West Brom (H)

And why would he want to go now? Despite the defeat, Tottenham are third in the Premier League table, only seven points off top spot too, which isn't an unattainable target for a team playing some fine, if perhaps occasionally naive, football.

What's more, Spurs are two points ahead of and have the luxury of a game in hand over their bitter north London rivals Arsenal, and even if the title might be just out of their grasp thanks to Manchester City's plundering of premium players, a top four spot and the prize of being the capital's best-placed club is firmly within their grasp this season – especially with, Chelsea at home aside, a relatively simple set of Christmas fixtures to bank points from.

Two years ago they reached the cash-laden promised land of the Champions League almost by default as City were still a staid work in progress and Liverpool were slipping into mediocrity, but now they are genuine contenders for a return to the finest tournament in Europe having sharpened their swords, learned from some of their mistakes, and got some of their rough diamonds looking mighty more glistening.

There are still areas that need much improvement, most notably in defence, but with an evergreen Brad Friedel continuing to perform at the highest level, Gareth Bale still far from plateauing, Modric seemingly happy with few better teams able to accommodate – let alone afford – him, and Adebayor having added an extra dimension, there is no reason why Tottenham should not prepare to welcome the cream of Europe to White Hart Lane once more.

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