After 21 minutes, there was still a match to be played. Three-fourths of the time remained. A different match was to come. Manchester City had edged a five-goal thriller by then but the host still needed a goal. Tottenham Hotspur had come looking for an away goal and they got two. Yet, the visitors probably needed to score again to reach the semi-finals. The wildly exhausting opening quarter of this match had birthed another contest, a match that really should have existed on its own.
Therein lay the beauty of the incomprehensible absurdity that was Wednesday evening at the Etihad Stadium. There were multiple matches packed into one. City won and City lost, thanks to the peculiarities of two-legged football that bloomed under the spring sky. Phases of play without a goal were like exercises in self-denial, so easy did goal-scoring seem at one point. In other moments, City overran Spurs and a tennis score seemed likely. But Tottenham kept finding the cracks within the host and breached them with supreme opportunism.
When the tempers do settle down, and it may take a while, Pep Guardiola will realise his team was guilty of blocking its own passage to the semi-finals. Aymeric Laporte was a hologram until Spurs took the lead, while Ederson really should have done better for the corner that led to Fernando Llorente’s decisive goal. City scored four times on the night and each time a goal was in response to the defensive foibles of the team – Fernandinho was not fit enough to start and his absence showed.
But Kevin de Bruyne made the evening worthwhile. Guardiola had let him play only a few minutes at White Hart Lane last week but the Belgian wonder-maker was allowed to swish his wand for the entirety of the second leg. His penchant for calm soothed City even when the tie had dramatically swung away from the team as Spurs led 2-1. De Bruyne provided assists for three of City’s four goals and they tell only a part of the story of his majestic performance.
The playmaker’s cross-field ball to set up Raheem Sterling in the six-yard box for City’s third goal was another demonstration of his unique periscopic vision that makes the ball elusive to anyone but its target. For his team’s next strike, De Bruyne glided past Wanyama with the ease of an ice skater. With minimum fuss, he took out multiple Spurs players before setting up Sergio Aguero. There were moments when the ball scurried to him like a magnet. De Bruyne turned and evaded Spurs all evening, making it obvious that the opposition had to control him and yet he left them feeling powerless.
Tottenham’s hero of the night was less dominant but arguably more clinical – Heung-min Son, if you were to discount Llorente’s hips. The South Korean’s razor-sharp finishing seems to gather more edges when Harry Kane is missing. In the absence of the club’s pre-eminent goal scorer, Son enjoys the added burden and it took him less than ten minutes to hit the net twice. The second of those goals was struck with fierce determination, flooring City’s hopes before they were raised again.
And they were revived by the host’s big-match players. De Bruyne was the obvious star but Sterling and Aguero showed why they are Guardiola’s most reliable players. The English forward displayed remarkable acuity in finishing off his chances while the Argentinean striker hit the target from the kind of angle that has become his trademark. The two combined at the death to nudge City over the line only for VAR to realise that Aguero had drifted marginally offside. Sterling’s hat-trick was to be incomplete; his highest point of the night remained the long-forgotten opening goal when he cut inside to direct a sublime left-footed effort past Hugo Lloris.
There was much talk of VAR after the match, mainly from Guardiola, without any evidence of poor decision-making. On current rules, Llorente’s goal stands and replays proved that Aguero was indeed offside for City’s ‘fifth’. More importantly, Guardiola had got his tactics right in a big Champions League game – his tendency to tinker for marquee clashes was the subject of intense discussion in the build-up. But City’s defensive frailties ensured that a first Champions League title since 2011 for the Catalan manager remains elusive. Just like last season, the English champion’s continental project came apart thanks to a resolute domestic rival.
Spurs have been tipped to go all the way by Ronaldinho but they almost did not. Pochettino’s tactics were questionable on the night as he replaced the injured Moussa Sissoko with Llorente in the first half. Already struggling to cope with the relentless City, Spurs were left with even less defensive support. In their uncharacteristic turquoise jersey, the visitors could barely keep their head above water.
Guardiola had once labelled Spurs ‘the Harry Kane team’. But on Wednesday, the North London club survived thanks to a unified belief in suffering. It was not Tottenham’s best performance and, after Fernandinho was introduced to lock City’s advantage, the visitors really should have drifted away in the second half. But with a few strokes of luck—so often it deserts Spurs—and intense determination, they made their way to the last four. Quite a turnaround from one point in three group stage matches!
Until Guardiola had moved to City, he had always reached at least the semi-finals of the Champions League. He is yet to do so even once with the club from Manchester. Spurs, of course, do not share the same objectives as City but Pochettino’s repeated success in breaking past multiple glass ceilings with the club has meant that he and Tottenham are in the Champions League semis for the first time ever. It is not reasonable progress, given the club’s lack of pedigree on the European stage. But as we learnt on Wednesday night, there is no limit to surprises.
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 13:47:50 IST