Just 11 months after leaving White Hart Lane for Toronto FC, the 32-year-old returned to his old stomping ground after completing a move to the north-east strugglers on the eve of this match.
Defoe received a warm reception in north London but left frustrated, with Christian Eriksen’s late strike – his third in as many games against Sunderland – securing Spurs a 2-1 win in the dying minutes.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side had looked like they would be frustrated as wayward finishing and an impressive display from Costel Pantilimon saw them struggle to add to Jan Vertonghen’s early strike, which came via a large deflection off John O’Shea.
The Belgium international was soon back at the heart of the action, hacking down Defoe to give former Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson the chance to curl home a wonderful equaliser.
That was Defoe’s most telling contribution, as he failed to make Sunderland the sixth club with whom he marked his league debut with a goal.
The man who replaced him in the second half, Danny Graham, was twice was denied Hugo Lloris – chances which came either side of the match-winning 88th-minute strike by Eriksen.
It was a frantic end to a match which saw a goal inside three minutes.
A poor Sunderland clearance saw the ball fall kindly for Vertonghen, who showed good feet to make himself space for a strike which found the back of the net following a large deflection off O’Shea.
The Belgium international celebrated the opening goal with a Superman pose – although moments later he was very nearly the villain.
Steven Fletcher produced a lovely flick into the path of Defoe and the Sunderland new boy turned into Vertonghen, hitting the deck inside the penalty area.
Defoe could not believe referee Chris Foy pointed for a corner rather than a spot-kick in what proved a rare attacking moment for Gus Poyet’s men.
Sunderland goalkeeper Pantilimon was doing well to keep his side in the game, producing a smart save to deny a low Eriksen strike before using his giant frame to thwart Roberto Soldado.
The Romanian bettered those saves when denying a wonderful, goalbound strike from Eriksen, although when Fletcher inexplicably failed score an open goal it looked like the visitors would fail to capitalise.
His blushes would be saved, though, as Vertonghen gave away what proved to be a costly free-kick. The centre-back was booked for foolishly scything down Defoe, who looked to have been in an offside position at the start of the move, allowing Larsson to curl home a wonderful equaliser from 25 yards.
Spurs desperately tried to regain their lead, which they came close to doing in first-half stoppage time when Harry Kane struck the post.
Spurs resumed play in the ascendancy, with Eriksen producing some wonderful skill on the edge of the box before sending a half volley across the face of goal.
Nacer Chadli and Kane had efforts blocked as the home side pushed for a goal, with Emmanuel Adebayor brought on in a bid to change the dynamics of the game.
It was the Togo striker’s first appearance since November 9 and his introduction in place of Soldado was met by boos from a smattering of Spurs fans.
Kane struck wide as Spurs continued to press, with Sunderland’s only noteworthy opportunity a powerful Defoe strike stopped by a timely Eric Dier tackle.
The Sunderland new boy was replaced by Graham as the visitors looked for a spark, although Spurs were still on top.
Andros Townsend, Danny Rose and Kane were threatening, while at the other end Graham wasted a wonderful chance for a goal after Lloris failed to hold onto Adam Johnson’s initial strike.
It was a let-off the hosts made the most of. Townsend squared the ball along the edge of the 18-yard box and Eriksen struck a low effort off the inside of the post to send White Hart Lane into raptures.
Lloris again thwarted Graham in stoppage time, producing a fine save, before Vertonghen scored his second on the break – only for it to be ruled out for offside.
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