Football — bloody hell, as a Manchester manager once said after a Champions League match of the highest drama.
Alex Ferguson was referring to the infamous 1999 Champions League final, when United beat Bayern Munch in stoppage time, but this was not far behind in terms of drama, controversy, and pure adrenaline-filled thrills from start to finish.
This time the side from Manchester ended up on the losing side, City cruelly denied at the death when a Raheem Sterling goal in stoppage time would have taken them through was disallowed for offside after VAR review. It would have been Sterling’s hat-trick, it would have edged City ahead of a battling Tottenham, and it would have set up a sumptuous semi-final against Ajax.
But referee Cuneyt Cakir, who had earlier used VAR to review Fernando Llorente’s 73rd minute goal that ultimately took Tottenham through on away goals, silenced home supporters when he cancelled Sterling’s strike after
It was the most chaotic, incredible, and dramatic finale imaginable to what had been a relentlessly high-octane goal from start to finish.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg at Tottenham last Tuesday, Pep Guardiola had no choice but to go for it, and Spurs were on the backfoot for much of the game, deprived of their talisman and leading scorer Harry Kane, injured by Fabian Delph’s lunge last week.
But as is so often the case, cometh the hour, cometh the Son, as Heung-Min Son stepped up once again to score twice in an incredible opening 11 minutes, when four goals were scored.
Expectation weighed heavily on both sets of players from their supporters before kick-off, with the prospect of a semi-final against Ajax not the straightforward tie it might have looked a few weeks ago. The Dutch side have reached the last four by winning at Real Madrid and Juventus, and it was that boldness of spirit that Pochettino tried to impress on his side, who have four former Ajax players in their ranks.
And it was City who came out of the blocks like greyhounds, haring after Spurs from the start. And what a start it was.
It is hard to remember a Champions League game of this magnitude where goals have flowed so freely in the opening 11 minutes.
Sterling started it, cutting inside from the left to curl a shot past Hugo Lloris from 15 yards. One-nil to City, one-all on aggregate. The Etihad erupted. But Spurs are not without character or fight, and within three minutes they were level on the night. Aymeric Laporte could claim an assist, if he were not too embarrassed by the way his attempt to stop Dele Alli’s pass teed up Son to fire low past Ederson from 15 yards.
Laporte, who had been so impressive up to this point in the season, was at fault again as the South Korean put Spurs ahead on the night. Laporte’s poor first-touch let in Lucas Moura, whose pass to Eriksen fell to Son, who cut in from the left to curl a shot into the far corner of goal. That made it 2-1 toTottenham on the night, 3-1 on aggregate, and with two away goals, it meant City needed to score four. They went at the task with gusto. Bernardo Silva equalised with a shot that flew off Danny Rose’s boot and wrongfooted Lloris to squeeze in at the near post.
It was breathless and breathtaking stuff. The noise level was already high but went up a notch when Sterling put City ahead in the 22nd minute, running the ball in from the far post after another low driven cross from Kevin De Bruyne, who was outstanding throughout.
There then followed a relative lull as the remainder of the first-half was played out without another goal. A wag in the crowd suggested at half-time that supporters would be asking for their money back if they did not see another goal soon. They did not have too long to wait, and inevitably it was City who scored again. Inevitable because they had laid siege to Tottenham’s goal from the start of the second half, and inevitable that it was Sergio Aguero who rifled home his 30th of the season, from almost the same spot that played host to his most famous goal, the stoppage-time winner against QPR in 2012 that won City the title.
The roar that greeted his goal last night was as loud as the one on that May day seven years ago, but unlike that day, the drama was far from over here.
Lloris had already kept City from doing further damage with a string of fine saves to deny Sterling, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
But Ederson had to be sharp to keep out Tottenham’s rare forays forward, with Son and Lucas Moura looking to outpace Laporte and Vincent Kompany. There was never much chance that Fernando Llorente, on as sub for the injured Moussa Sissoko, was ever going to beat anyone for pace, but his aerial abilities are what has paid the bills for the towering Spaniard throughout his illustrious career.
And so it was he unsettled Ederson from one corner that the Brazilian flapped to concede another. When Kieron Trippier swung the ball in from the left, it looked like Llorente had headed Spurs ahead. VAR was triggered by something picked up by the TV cameras, and referee Cuneyt Cakir spent an age deliberating whether the ball had flown in off Llorente’s arm or hip. The official finally pointed to the centre spot, gesturing that he felt the ball hit his hip.
Now it was the turn of Tottenham’s travelling army of fans, tucked in the far corner of the stadium to celebrate.
But the drama was about to go up a notch. A poorly placed Spurs clearance allowed Aguero a run on goal, he cut it back for Sterling, and deep in stoppage time the England forward looked to have won it. But VAR is an unforgiving master, and what it can give, it can take away. When Cakir raised his arm to signal an indirect free-kick for offside, City and their fans were crushed, while the Spurs contingent only had to wait two more minutes to begin their celebrations, which were loud and long.
They won’t forget this night for a long, long time — and nor will those of us who were lucky enough to witness it first hand.