For 85 minutes Southampton matched and often bettered Tottenham, but Spurs star Bale popped up yet again in the dying minutes to rifle home a superb 25-yard drive that gave the home side a crucial 1-0 win.
The strike brought his tally for the current campaign to 30 - double his previous best for a whole season - and it also means that he becomes the first Tottenham player since Jurgen Klinsmann to register 20 league goals in a season.
Earlier in the week, Southampton boss Pochettino was loathed to suggest that Spurs were overly reliant on the 23-year-old, who was named FWA Footballer of the season on Thursday, just four days after doing the double at the PFA Awards.
However, Pochettino hinted he had re-evaluated that position this evening, though, after watching the Welshman snatch all three points for the north London club.
"He is not on the same level as Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi yet, but Bale is one of the top 10 players in the world today," Pochettino said.
"He could play for any side in the world, in any league in the world.
"Perhaps I made a mistake when I said Tottenham were not a one man team.
"We didn't deserve to lose but one special, amazing moment from Gareth Bale and all that hard work was undone."
Bale's winner was all the more surprising given the way that he laboured through most of the game.
Southampton often doubled up on Bale, and he struggled to gain composure as he flitted between the three different positions he assumed throughout the 90 minutes.
Bale just needed one chance to make the difference, though, and Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas was left to shower praise on his star man not for the first time this season.
"At the moment the player is in outstanding form and is scoring goals out of nowhere, with great ability," the Portuguese said.
"He is really enjoying his football and it was good for him to decide it once again.
"He had a difficult game at the beginning. He couldn't find the spaces to receive the ball.
"We weren't passing the ball properly, we were trying a lot of long balls and our game wasn't going our way. In the second half we managed to find him a little bit better, on the left and on the right when we changed it, and it was the only moment when Southampton left him, that split second."
Southampton came close to taking the lead on several occasions, most notably in the first half when Rickie Lambert's free-kick was tipped on to a post by the brilliant Hugo Lloris.
Nathaniel Clyne also missed a glorious chance in the 10th minute when he latched on to Lambert's through-ball before volleying wide.
But Bale's strike settled the match and put Tottenham level with Chelsea ahead of their meeting with the Blues on Wednesday night.
"We are still in a great position but it will be extremely difficult," said Villas-Boas, whose former employers face Manchester United on Sunday.
"We have a great week ahead of us with two away games, that are decisive to keep us in the frame.
"Everything is in our hands and we hope to make that final push. The game against Chelsea will be a massive, massive game for us.
"Obviously it depends on whatever Arsenal and Chelsea do with their remaining fixtures but at the moment we are still in with a shout and destiny is in our own hands."
Villas-Boas confirmed that Aaron Lennon and Mousa Dembele are doubts for the derby against Chelsea after they came off with muscle injuries today.
"There is a small possibility that they will be OK," Villas-Boas said.
"We will have to let it settle a little bit and reassess them."
Scott Parker missed the game with an ankle problem, but should be fit to face his former club on Wednesday, Villas-Boas said.