Jermain Defoe fired Tottenham Hotspur into the Premier League title race as his second-half strike clinched a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on Tuesday.
Defoe’s clinical finish shattered Albion’s stubborn resistance and moved Harry Redknapp’s third-placed side within three points of second-placed Manchester United before their match at Newcastle United.
Spurs remain six points behind leaders Manchester City, but that gap could be cut to just three if the north Londoners win their game in hand at home to Everton next week.
Redknapp has been coy about Spurs’ chances of mounting a serious title challenge, preferring instead to concentrate on clinching a top-four place that would guarantee Champions League action next season.
The victory was a boost to that European ambition, but it also provided Spurs with a realistic opportunity of catching the top two.
The only negative for Redknapp was a pair of injuries to Brazilian midfielder Sandro and French defender William Gallas, and he will hope neither is sidelined for long.
With midfielder Scott Parker absent because of a knee problem, Redknapp handed England striker Defoe his first league start for a month. It proved a shrewd move.
Just 48 hours earlier, Albion were beaten at home by Everton and Roy Hodgson’s players looked lethargic in the opening stages as Spurs won five corners in quick succession.
That initial flurry from Spurs produced only a Defoe shot that drifted wide and a blocked effort from Luka Modric, but, with Albion content to defend deep, Redknapp’s side had so much of the ball that it was only a matter of time before they fashioned a better opportunity.
Gareth Bale was the catalyst as Spurs finally got behind Albion’s stubborn rearguard.
The Wales winger surged away down the left and slipped a low cross toward Rafael van der Vaart, who met the ball with a first-time strike that Ben Foster tipped over at full stretch.
Redknapp was forced to make a change when Sandro limped off after half an hour to be replaced by youngster Jake Livermore.
In truth, Spurs hardly needed anyone to play the midfield anchor role. Such was Tottenham’s total domination of possession, the first half resembled a training ground exercise of attack against defense.
Defoe volleyed over the bar from Emmanuel Adebayor’s clever back-flick early in the second half and threatened again moments later with a deflected effort that crept wide of the far post.
Albion, now without a goal in their last three matches, had displayed little attacking intent, but almost snatched the lead when Craig Dawson rose highest to head a corner just wide.
Simon Cox went even closer with an incisive run and shot which forced Brad Friedel into action for the first time, but Spurs have too many creative talents to be subdued for long and they made the breakthrough in the 63rd minute of the match.
Van der Vaart showed quick feet to flick a pass to Bale, who picked out Defoe just 8m out. Defoe had his back to goal and was surrounded by a posse of defenders, but he still managed to turn and whip a low shot past Foster for his 10th goal of the season.
Gallas came off injured moments later and Livermore was also replaced after a clash of heads with teammate Younes Kaboul.
Those changes disrupted Spurs’ momentum and Albion substitute Somen Tchoyi almost stole an equalizer with a powerful strike that Friedel parried to safety.