The merits of a run in the Europa League had been on the agenda this week as some of England's Champions League strugglers confronted their fate.
But on a chilly and competitive evening in north London, Tottenham saw off Panathinaikos, responding with affection to their ongoing participation in this competition.
André Villas-Boas spoke proudly of the way his team have tackled the dual challenges of Premier League and Europa League football but he also took a moment to criticise a format which throws open the doors for the likes of his old team Chelsea to enter a party to which they were not originally invited. "I think it's extremely unfair," opined the Tottenham manager. "You can't give a bonus to teams who fail. The situation is that teams fail in the Champions League and are promoted to the Europa League."
Villas-Boas is vehement in his enthusiasm for this competition. "We are very pleased to be in the last 32 and also that we have shown we can embrace it in a serious way," he said.
Tottenham's European campaign has been littered with draws, and another would have been enough here. But such is the sense of an evolving team under Villas-Boas, they were delighted to go one better and take their sequence of wins to four. On they roll.
As usual Villas-Boas picked a strong side in this competition. With Gareth Bale absent with a hamstring strain, Clint Dempsey shouldered much of the creative responsibility and picked out a handful of opportunities as well as contributing to two vital goals. It was his header which ended Panathinaikos's hopes of an upset, a prospect that simmered during the second half when the Greek team threatened to expose some Tottenham nerves.
The other goals came from Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe, the burgeoning attacking partnership at the head of a 4-4-2. After an uneventful opening, Tottenham sprang to life just before the half-hour mark, when Dempsey slid a pass for Adebayor, who was hovering around the last line of defence. The Togolese striker eased goalwards and calmly slotted past Orestis Karnezis to give Spurs the lead. That looked likely to grow as Defoe sniffed out chances and Jan Vertonghen went close with a thumping free header.
Although Panathinaikos played with spirit, they struggled to build many moves of genuine promise until they finally broke with purpose in the 54th minute. Nikos Spyropoulos swung in an enticing cross and Zeca timed his run to nod expertly past Brad Friedel. The atmosphere lurched suddenly.
Briefly, Tottenham's game became inhibited, a little error-strewn. In the 69th minute, they flirted with calamity, as Kyle Naughton's attempted clearance thudded into Toché, who was lurking in front of goal. Luckily for Spurs, the Spanish striker was unable to arrange his feet well enough to make a clean connection. The game became, as Villas-Boas described it, "unpredictable".
With the wind at their backs, Panathinaikos chose a poor moment to take their eye off the ball. Spurs broke to win a free-kick, which was lofted in by Kyle Walker. Dempsey was left unmarked and eagerly pounced with a header that bounced back off the crossbar and in via the keeper's back.
Defoe gave the scoreline some gloss with a fine chipped finish to crown Aaron Lennon's tidy approach play. Mission accomplished. The applause, come the final whistle, was warm.
The residents of White Hart Lane had not taken long to launch into a dig at Chelsea, whose interventions last May bumped Tottenham's fourth-place finish into Europe's second tier. "Champions of Europe, you're not any more," they chanted.
Although technically Chelsea retain the honour until the next winner is crowned, it was understandable that they should wish for a similar curse on the Stamford Bridge club, who now find themselves ushered out of the Champions League and into the Europa League.
Villas-Boas had a glint in his eye as he considered the prospect of a possible meeting with his former employers, although that would be possible only from the last-16 on. "Sometimes it's destiny," he said. "Hopefully if we go through we can meet each other, obviously. If we cross it is going to be two magnificent games for sure."
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