FOR AS long as Gareth Bale plays like this, Tottenham have a good chance for the Champions League. Spurs climbed into fifth place last night after overcoming Liverpool in a thrilling game at White Hart Lane.
This was precisely what a winter Premier League match should be like. It was played under lights, surrounded by sound and with enough pace, energy and movement to warm the whole crowd.
Tottenham and Liverpool were both excellent, with a shared commitment to expansive, attacking, attractive football. The whole game felt like the final five minutes of a cup tie, with the ball hurtling from end to end all evening. Spurs can feel that the three points were justified. They now move ahead of both of Everton and Arsenal in the table.
Liverpool were probably the dominant team for the majority of the night. Their manager, Brendan Rodgers, said he was "bitterly disappointed" not to have won. They certainly had enough chances.
They had Luis Suarez on characteristically brilliant form. But they did not have Bale, arguably the only man in the Premier League more explosive than Suarez and less stoppable. He was so good, in fact, that Andre Villas-Boas said that keeping him at Tottenham might not be possible forever.
Bale was the mastermind of the 16-minute storm which won Spurs the game. He did more good work in that opening session than most wingers do in six months. It started with a swerving free-kick which Pepe Reina saved, before he flashed a shot wide from Jermain Defoe's lay-off.
The next time he had the ball he was ruthless. Taking it near the halfway line, Bale tore past Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson, galloping untouchably towards the byline. He swung in a perfect cross to the far post where Aaron Lennon could tap the ball in.
The second goal in the 16th minute did owe something to fortune. Jordan Henderson tripped Clint Dempsey. Bale struck the 25-yard free-kick, it hit the wall and flew past Reina.
Villas-Boas must know that Bale, more than anyone else, carries his hopes of Champions League football with him, playing probably the best football of his career so far.
"He is scoring more than last season by this stage," the Spurs manager said.
"It is unbelievable his physical freshness, his motivation towards playing, what he does offensively and defensively, he takes over the whole of the left wing and it is never ending."
Keeping him in London could be an issue, AVB conceded: "Obviously Tottenham as a football club want to keep him here for as long as we can but we understand players like this have propositions and a market, which is the nature of the game."
Of course, the better Bale plays the greater the fear he will do so elsewhere, as Villas-Boas admitted. "We have no doubt he can become a top player in the future," he said. "He is onto a great career."
After Bale's burst, though, Liverpool were the better team. They started to attack with pace and width, with Suarez teasing the veteran combination of Michael Dawson and William Gallas throughout.
Henderson missed a good chance, before Hugo Lloris in the Spurs goal had to save from Suarez and Jose Enrique.
Liverpool might have had two penalties for tackles on Steven Gerrard and Suarez, while Suarez volleyed over a good chance to make it 2-2.
"Obviously we're bitterly disappointed having dominated the game," Rodgers said.
"Our tempo and rhythm were relentless, we certainly deserved something.
"Nothing is going for us away from home, that's how it's been all season in terms of decisions.
"The Steven Gerrard one was nearly assault. How is that not a penalty?
"The statistics will tell you that we've been in the box as much as anyone, but to arrive at this stage of season and not get a penalty..."
When Liverpool did score, the source might not have been a surprise.
Daniel Agger headed at goal, Lennon cleared and it hit a team-mate and went in. For the only time of the night, Gareth Bale was powerless.