LONDON (AFP) - Gareth Bale enhanced his burgeoning reputation with another superb goal as Tottenham beat Southampton 1-0 on Saturday to remain in the hunt for Champions League football next season.
Voted this season's player of the year by both fellow professionals and sports writers, the Wales international broke the deadlock with a solo effort from outside the box with just four minutes remaining.
And the goal means Tottenham can now head to Chelsea on Wednesday confident of getting something out of the game in hand both sides possess over Arsenal in their fascinating three-way tussle for the two available qualification places.
The result was nonetheless harsh on Southampton, whose performance had been worthy of at least a point. But the south coast side know as well as anyone how potent Bale can be, having sold him to Tottenham for a fee rising to £7 million (S$13.5 million) in 2007.
Kick-off at White Hart Lane was delayed by 30 minutes because of traffic problems caused by a chemical spillage that closed part of the M25 motorway.
When the game did get under way, there was an early chance for Spurs striker Jermain Defoe when the Southampton back line struggled to clear, but his shot ended up in the side-netting.
Southampton's reply was a move that caught Tottenham out as striker Rickie Lambert played right-back Nathaniel Clyne in behind the home defence.
Clyne flashed a powerful shot wide of the far post, but that was just the beginning of a spell of pressure from the away side, whose quick passing was impressive.
Tottenham captain Michael Dawson was forced to concede a corner to stop Guly Do Prado setting up Jay Rodriguez, who headed over from the ensuing set-piece.
Tottenham were forced into a change 10 minutes before half-time when midfielder Mousa Dembele, who had been a pre-match injury doubt, was forced off.
The Belgian came off worse in a tussle with Rodriguez that saw Southampton awarded a free-kick, and Lewis Holtby came on to replace him.
Lambert blasted the free-kick past the wall, but Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris pulled off an excellent save to divert it onto a post and then did brilliantly to repel Steven Davis' follow-up header.
Bale switched from a roving forward role to his more usual left-sided berth for the second period and immediately hit the bar, but the whistle had already gone for offside.
Adam Lallana fired a Southampton reply straight at Lloris after getting the better of Dawson, and it was not long before Lambert had another go from a free-kick, this time firing wide from distance.
Tottenham were looking frustrated and sent Emmanuel Adebayor on for Aaron Lennon on the hour mark. The former Arsenal forward set up Clint Dempsey for a good chance, but the American scooped harmlessly over.
Referee Mark Clattenburg then twice opted not to award Tottenham a penalty, first when the ball hit Clyne on the arm and then when Bale went down under Jack Cork's challenge.
But Bale was not to be denied and he won the game for Spurs in the 86th minute with a superb effort. He cut inside from the right flank and, having out-paced Luke Shaw, launched a blistering low drive that flew past Saints goalkeeper Artur Boruc.