Hip or arm? Offside or not? Ultimately, one fact trumps all. Score three goals against Manchester City away from home, and four over two legs, and you deserve anything that comes your way.
So all VAR controversy aside, this was Tottenham’s tie, Tottenham’s glory. They won the first game at home, despite losing their prolific striker Harry Kane, and while they did not win here, they did what was required to progress. They scored. And they scored again. And then, when they were losing 4-2 and heading out of the competition, they scored a third. And, yes, it was dubious; but some calls always will be.
More importantly, it was a goal that came from a striker Mauricio Pochettino introduced after 41 minutes, Fernando Llorente, having lost a hard-running midfielder, Moussa Sissoko. And Tottenham were going through at the time that happened. So it was a bold call. And bold calls deserve to be vindicated. So it is hard to begrudge Tottenham their progress. Fortune favours the brave; or, to dare is to do, as they like to say in that part of north London. Pochettino dared. Good luck to him.
What must be said, also, is that this was a quite wonderful game, full of drama and the finest riposte to those dullards who would make this competition about history, and mediocre famous names. Neither Manchester City or Tottenham have ever contested a final in the Champions League or European Cup. That they gave the competition one of the finest shows in living memory proves that history is bunk. In elite sport, what matters is now.
There were four minutes to go before half-time when Pochettino made one of the bravest calls of his managerial career. Sissoko limped off; Llorente came on. Looking at Tottenham’s bench, there was plenty of opportunity for caution. It was stuffed with defensive cover.
Going through on away goals at the time Pochettino could have tried to hold what he had. Instead, he gambled that he might need to score again in a crazy match. Sent on Llorente, shuffled his attacking forwards so that Dele Alli dropped deeper. He was proven right. By the time Llorente scored, City were winning, both game and tie. They had laid siege to Tottenham’s goal after half-time and Sergio Aguero had at last found a way through.
Kevin De Bruyne was the architect, powering through the centre, a lovely run, laying the ball to Aguero on the right. He lashed it past Hugo Lloris at the near post. No goalkeeper is content when beaten from that position, but the ball was as good as past him before he could react. Some of Aguero’s finishes are simply unstoppable.
Llorente, not so much. He had only scored two Champions League goals for Tottenham in two seasons before this, his playing opportunities greatly limited. The goal that sent Tottenham through to a last four meeting with Ajax was hardly a classic, either. It wouldn’t even get in the top six scored on the night. It was a fluke.
Ederson failed to get to a corner, conceding another from the opposite side – and Llorente bundled that in with his body, missing the header but somehow making a connection.
MATCH FACTS, RATINGS, DRAW AND MATCH ZONE
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson 6, Walker 6, Kompany 7, Laporte 4, Mendy 6 (Sane 83), De Bruyne 9.5, Gundogan 5.5, Silva 6 (Fernandinho 63, 6), Sterling 9, Aguero 8.5, Bernardo Silva 8
Subs not used: Muric, Stones, Mahrez, Otamendi, Gabriel Jesus
Manager: Pep Guardiola 7
Goals: Sterling 4, 21, Bernardo 11, Aguero 59
Tottenham (4-1-2-1-2): Lloris 5.5, Trippier 5, Alderweireld 6.5, Vertonghen 6, Rose 6 (Sanchez 90), Sissoko 7 (Llorente 41, 6.5), Wanyama 6, Alli 6, Eriksen 8, Lucas Moura 8, Son 8.5
Subs not used: Gazzaniga, Lamela, Foyth, Davies, Skipp
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino 8
Goals: Son 7, 10, Llorente 72
Yellow cards: Son, Sissoko, Rose, Wanyama
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey) 5
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SEMI FINAL DRAW:
Barcelona vs Liverpool
Tottenham vs Ajax
To add to the tension it looked as if it might have come off his arm. Referee Cuneyt Cakir went to a pitchside screen for clarification and returned pointing to the centre-spot and patting his hip. Was it off the hip? It certainly hit that part of Llorente’s body, but maybe arm first. It was hard to say. The call was not so obvious that the goal could be cancelled.
Unlike the offside in the build up to Raheem Sterling’s goal in injury time. The one that Manchester City thought had sent them through, the one that inspired Pep Guardiola to go haring down the touchline in celebration, only to see the bad news from VAR-land and collapse to his knees, head in hands.
The locals were aggrieved, but without VAR what would have happened? Llorente’s and Sterling’s goals would both have stood, and City would have progressed. Then we would have found out the winner was offside. So, in this case, VAR ensured justice was done. That doesn’t make it any easier for City; but it makes it fair.
So no quadruple and no European title for Pep Guardiola. Amazingly, some will argue he has failed. Yet who would be a manager on nights like this? There was a moment, when the fourth goal had gone in after 11 minutes – or maybe the fifth after 21 – when had Guardiola and Pochettino looked at each other, burst out laughing and adjourned to the nearest pub, nobody could have blamed them.
After all, if we consider that Tottenham would have been warned City like to start fast, so keep it tight, and Manchester City would have been told a single Tottenham goal could be fatal, so stay focussed and no silly mistakes, then the presence of either manager had already been rendered hopelessly redundant.
Far from keeping it tight, Tottenham shipped three goals in the space of 17 minutes. Far from avoiding costly errors, City made two that cost goals in a three minute spell. No Champions League fixture had ever witnessed four goals inside 11 minutes, English football once again demonstrating it has never quite got to grips with the cat and mouse thing that is supposed to be the way to go in Europe.
If this was cat and mouse, it resembled one of those Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the pair chase each other through a series of immaculately furnished rooms, destroying every bit of priceless china in their wake. It was a ridiculous, preposterous, and really quite wonderful.
It began in the fourth minute when De Bruyne played a sweet pass out to Sterling on the left and Kieran Trippier made the big mistake of steering his England team-mate inside. No defender should do that, given Sterling’s current form, and it was a decision that proved costly.
Given sight of the target, these days, Sterling is one of the most lethal finishers in Europe and his shot curled out of the reach of Hugo Lloris, perfectly into the far corner.
The stadium erupted, in relief and expectation. City were level on aggregate, with 86 minutes to play, at home. So what happened next must have come as a shock. Tottenham equalised, then led. Left City to battle uphill for the remainder of the match. It was a stunning 180 seconds.
The leveller came on seven minutes. Good work from Alli sent the ball into City’s box’s but Aymeric Laporte’s unthinking clearance was as good as a pass to Hueng-min Son. His record without Harry Kane is well-known, so the precision of his finish was hardly a surprise.
Even so, Ederson should have done better. The ball travelled low and City’s goalkeeper tried to keep it out with his feet. He is no David De Gea. He missed his kick, Tottenham led on aggregate.
The next goal was the game-changer and Laporte at fault again. It was his mistake, high up the field, that let Lucas Moura in on a rapid counter-attack. He fed Eriksen who moved the ball swiftly on to Son and, well, you can guess the rest.
Another curling shot, another goal in the absence of Kane. It really is the most peculiar phenomenon. Look at Son’s scoring record when Kane is on the field. Maybe he’s allergic to him.
So now City needed three and within ten minutes had two of them. Just a minute had elapsed since Tottenham’s last when Aguero laid the ball off to Bernardo Silva on the right. With team-mates calling for a return, he went it alone and his shot ricocheted of the legs of Danny Rose and past Lloris. Could he have done better? Probably.
City were then at their quick-thinking best for the third. A free-kick was awarded for a foul by Sissoko, and De Bruyne took it sharply, bringing Bernardo Silva in on the right. He drove with such aggression that Son fell over just trying to recover his position, by which time De Bruyne had appeared on the outside.
The ball returned to his feet he whipped a centre across the face of goal, and there was Sterling once again to convert at the far post.
Yet City were always vulnerable, once Tottenham started scoring. Repeat this scoreline when the teams meet here in the league on Saturday, and City will be jubilant. On Wednesday night they looked heartbroken. They don’t care about Europe? Don’t believe a word of that.