It was the game that had it all. Sky Sports picks out the talking points from Tottenham’s Champions League win over Man City and what it means for the rematch…
Football does drama like nothing else
And to think there will have been those who left the stadium early.
Some matches start spectacularly, others have a dramatic denouement. But very few contests have it all and this one did.
Five goals were scored in the opening 21 minutes of this game – it’s the shortest amount of time it has ever taken for five goals to be scored in a Champions League match. It was wild and it was wonderful as the star performers in both line-ups looked determined to steal the show for themselves. Attack dominated defence and all that there was to do was to enjoy it.
Any great drama requires a change of pace. And the second half delivered it. The aching of the home crowd for that fourth goal was palpable. And how appropriate that City’s record scorer Sergio Aguero should be the man to provide it. Then came what most would have assumed to be the final twist with Fernando Llorente’s goal turning the tie back the other way as only an away goal can.
And just when you thought you had seen it all. Raheem Sterling scored what appeared to all in the stadium to be the winner. Only for VAR to add another layer to the drama…
The emotion of VAR moment elevated the tie to the epic
This should have been the night that Manchester City supporters truly fell in love with the Champions League. Instead, they left the Etihad Stadium more scarred by it than ever before.
VAR was correct to flag Aguero offside in the build-up to Sterling’s stoppage-time ‘goal’. The potential handball call against Llorente for what turned out to be the winner could have gone either way. But football is about emotion as well as fact. And these City supporters were put through it.
Dermot Gallagher says the two controversial VAR decisions in Tottenham's Champions League thriller with Manchester City were correct
VAR didn’t just change the tie, it decided it.
Step beyond the specific, however, and another outlook stands out.
VAR is a game changer for the game. A goal is now only a goal when it has been checked and cleared by VAR. That will require a seismic shift in the mentality of football fans everywhere. But perhaps we ought to look at it this way too: the introduction of video technology made last night’s tie unforgettable. Even surpassing Manchester United’s VAR-assisted epic against PSG last month. And prolonged an extraordinary affair into the truly epic.
It’s likely to be an unpopular view. But its use this season may have actually made the Champions League even better.
City’s fans find their voice…
None of which made it any more palatable for the home supporters.
As a reporter in the stadium, there is little like the moments that surround a VAR decision and nothing like this particular one. The fans in front of the press box are clamouring for answers from those with monitors in front of them and the journalist briefly becomes kingmaker. A thumb up and it’s blessed relief. A thumb down and it’s anguish everywhere.
The wait was interminable. It might make for good television but for the fans in the ground it must feel unbearable and the bald explanation insufficient given the circumstances. Trust in officials has never been high. Supporters need to see it for themselves to believe it. Many left the ground cursing UEFA and everyone else for what they had been forced to endure.
The bitter irony for City’s fans is that they have spent much of the decade being accused of not being fully invested in this competition and not just by rival supporters. Even Pep Guardiola tried to coax that bit extra on the eve of the game with some pointed remarks. “I want to see that they want to get to the semi-finals, not just the players, the fans too,” he said. “I want to see that.”
He wanted them involved and he got it. Which must have made their injury-time heartbreak all the more painful.
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Tottenham are in dreamland
The emotions could hardly have been more different for Tottenham fans.
Into their new state-of-the-art home at the start of the month and into the Champions League semi-finals for the end of April. Tottenham have rarely had it so good. They haven’t just entered the elite, they have found themselves. This is arguably Tottenham’s greatest moment since 1961.
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It’s not the double. Of course, it’s not. Mauricio Pochettino is still waiting for the trophy that would mark all that he has achieved in this past five years. But to suggest Spurs have nothing to show for the advances they have made under the Argentine would be absurd. They are not just dining at the top table now, they are gorging themselves.
Another top-four finish appears inevitable and they are not just showing up in the Champions League for the cheque. They are in it to win it now and hopes will be high that they can take the next step. There was a time when Spurs supporters would have feared it was inevitable that Arsenal would become European champions before they did. Not now.
City lost it in the first leg
For Guardiola, the nightmare is a recurring one. But should he have attacked more? There will be those wondering just that after seeing City succumb to the away-goals rule. Perhaps influenced by his previous eliminations with the club in which they were beaten 3-1 in Monaco and 3-0 in Liverpool, Guardiola stopped well short of throwing everything at Tottenham in that first leg and it proved costly.
The man widely regarded as the outstanding coach of his generation has now failed to reach the final of the Champions League in each of his last seven attempts and that’s largely down to his struggles away from home. Guardiola has won six of his 26 knockout ties on the road and it’s undermining his ambitions. Worryingly, perhaps it’s he who is undermining his ambitions.
The tale oft-told about Guardiola is of how he will sit in a darkened room for hours until he has worked out the weakness that he can exploit in the opposition but his obsession could be counting against him in this competition. In both legs he named a starting line-up that he had never picked before and not because of injury or suspension.
The suspicion is that he did so because of a compulsion to interject. A desire to be the one who bent the tie to his will through some ingenuity instead of trusting his team to do what they have done so spectacularly well all season.
Sterling just gets better and better
And not just in the goals and the assists and the all-round contribution he has made to City and England’s rise this year.
Sterling is becoming a leader, a role model and a statesman.
It’s easy to speak well in victory. Less so in the aftermath of a gut-wrenching setback, a jolting low after the delirium of thinking you have scored an injury-time winner to take your side through to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Where was Sane again?
The decision to leave Kevin De Bruyne on the bench for all but a minute of that first leg was exposed for the folly it appeared to be at the time as he produced a brilliant performance that oh so nearly carried City through, but he wasn’t the only omission. Once again, Leroy Sane’s involvement was restricted to a brief cameo.
At least it wasn’t Riyad Mahrez preferred to the German here. But it’s confusing nevertheless that a player who averages a goal involvement every 90 minutes in the Premier League this season was given just a fraction of that time over two legs against Tottenham. It is tempting to think that Guardiola had the resources to win this tie had he only chosen to deploy them.
No Harry Kane, no problem
There was no such luxury for Pochettino who was pressed into using many of his fringe players on the night. He was without the services of Serge Aurier, Eric Dier and Harry Winks. He lost Moussa Sissoko in that frenzied first half. But the true mark of this accomplishment is that it was achieved without Harry Kane.
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True, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Tottenham’s victory last night actually came about in defeat. But it’s progress, not individual results, which matter at this stage and the real fact of the matter is that Tottenham have progressed ahead of Manchester City to the last four of European’s elite competition despite playing almost three-quarters of the tie without their talisman.
Tottenham are a one-man team? The notion has been crushed to dust. And how fitting that the result that underlines that point more than any other should come against the coach who infamously referred to them as ‘the Harry Kane team’ back in 2017.
Double up on talk of Liverpool
It’s not all bad for City, of course. The quadruple is out but the prospect of a treble is still very much on.
Could this chastening Champions League elimination serve to concentrate the mind and see City redouble their efforts to ensure that they became the first team to retain the Premier League title this decade? If they can do so, it is Watford who will stand between them and an historic domestic treble before May is through.
But they are not the only ones chasing history.
Amid all the talk of City aiming for a unique quadruple. It’s been too easily overlooked that Liverpool have the most prestigious double in football in their sights: the Champions League and Premier League titles.
It’s a feat which moved significantly closer on Tuesday night. Firstly, of course, because they made sure of their own progression to the Champions League semi-finals with an emphatic dismantling of Porto. Three games – albeit with two guaranteed to be against Barcelona – stand between Jurgen Klopp’s side and the indisputable right to be considered kings of Europe.
But did their prospects of becoming kings of England not also strengthen significantly on Wednesday night? Their title opposition have been hit hard. Mentally and physically. City’s resolve is about to face an ultimate test.
And now they get to do it all over again
Saturday lunchtime’s rematch is one not to be missed.