MANCHESTER, England –It was Pep Guardiola’s Jose Mourinho moment. A late, dramatic winner in a Champions League tie, followed by the victorious manager sprinting down the touchline to celebrate wildly with his players.
But then, in the flash of a video screen, it wasn’t.
The Etihad Stadium went from raucous noise to mournful silence as Raheem Sterling’s 93rd-minute hat-trick goal, Manchester City’s fifth on the night, was ruled out — correctly — following a VAR review that ruled that Sergio Aguero had been offside at the beginning of the move for the goal. It was a tight call, but it was the right one, and Guardiola was forced to sheepishly retreat back to his bench, knowing that his team had just two more minutes to score again to claim the crucial goal required to eliminate Tottenham and reach the semifinals.
Back in 2004, there was no such pin-pricking of Mourinho’s balloon as he celebrated Porto’s late winner at Manchester United — a goal that propelled the Portuguese club to Champions League glory that season. But on this occasion, it was like Guardiola had been abruptly woken from a dream to find himself in a living nightmare. City could not score again and Spurs went through on away goals, with the score tied 4-4 on aggregate.
“It is cruel,” Guardiola said. “But it is what it is and we have to accept it.”
Once again, City had fallen short in the Champions League. Once again, Guardiola had failed to take his team to the final, having now not done so since guiding Barcelona to victory against Manchester United in the 2011 final at Wembley.
But such was the drama of this quarterfinal second leg in Manchester that the events in stoppage time were only a small element of the story of the tie.
The damage was done to City in the first leg, when Spurs won 1-0 after Aguero had missed a penalty — awarded by VAR — inside the first 10 minutes. It was also a night that saw Harry Kane suffer the ankle injury that threatens to rule him out for the rest of the season and, potentially, the Champions League final.
Yet what happened in the first leg was only a taster of what was to come at the Etihad on a night of football madness: a pulsating encounter that will go down as a Champions League classic.
City went ahead inside four minutes, levelling the tie on aggregate, when Sterling curled past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from 12 yards. The Etihad erupted, but within five minutes, the home side were 2-1 down with Son Heung-Min — scorer of the only goal in the first leg — netting twice on the counterattack.
City now needed to score three more times without response to stay in the Champions League and keep their Quadruple dream alive. Bernardo Silva pulled one backone within two minutes of Son’s second to make it 2-2, and it was then 3-2 on 21 minutes after Sterling converted Kevin De Bruyne’s cross at the far post.
Just let that sink in: 3-2 after 21 minutes. This was video-game football, attack versus defence, with attack winning every time. Sterling and Son were running riot, terrorising their direct opponents whenever they had the ball, while De Bruyne was also producing his best performance of the season.
But at 3-2, City needed one more goal to go through, and nobody scores more late goals than Manchester City. And the loss of injured Spurs midfielder Moussa Sissoko on 41 minutes, which forced Mauricio Pochettino to change his formation by introducing Fernando Llorente as a lonea striker, appeared to play into City’s hands.
Spurs were now light in midfield and had lost their biggest strength — pace on the counter — and they began to ship water as the second half progressed. City pushed them deeper and deeper towards their own goal, and the pressure told when Aguero scored from De Bruyne’s pass on 59 minutes to put Guardiola’s team ahead for the first time in the tie.
Rather than sit back and play the game out, City went for the kill. One more goal would surely finish Spurs off.
But it didn’t come, and then came the first crucial VAR intervention, when Llorente deflected in Kieran Trippier’s corner before Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was called to review it on the video screen by VAR. Cakir took an age, reviewing numerous angles before shrugging his shoulders and awarding the goal, judging that the ball went in off Llorente’s hip rather than his hand. It was the right call.
But City still had 17 minutes plus stoppage time to tilt the pendulum back in their favour, and they pushed once again, pouring forward and targeting the byline. The clock ticked on, into stoppage time, until Christian Eriksen’s loss of possession gifted the ball to Aguero, who laid it off for Sterling to score.
Guardiola sprinted to celebrate and the Etihad went wild, but VAR had one more card to play. Bernardo Silva’s outstretched leg had diverted the ball towards Aguero and the cold, emotionless VAR once again called a big decision correctly: Aguero was offside and the goal would not count.
City would not win and the Quadruple dream was over, for another year at least. The Champions League, the biggest prize of all, continues to elude City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan.
It is Spurs who march on, with a semifinal looming against Ajax — a tie they will expect to win, even without Kane and Son, the latter will miss the first leg through suspension. Pochettino is eyeing Champions League glory, not Guardiola, but the Spurs coach insisted it was all down to his players.
“My players are heroes, making the semifinal, making history,” he said. “I am so proud of them. This team has such strong mentality that all is possible.
“But to reach a semifinal in the Champions League, you need fate, good spirit, lots of preparation in preseason. It is a long time ago that we started to build this achievement.”