Spurs, Manchester City, and When Football Loses The Plot

The morning after the night before, Spurs supporters will be waking up with fuzzy heads and a mild feeling of cognitive dissonance. This wasn’t exactly how things were expected to play out, was it? An evening of sweltering football and drama in Manchester had ended with an unlikely place in the semi-finals of the Champions League. They’d lost on the night but had found a back door route through against a team widely held as infallible, summoning up an away goals win which ranks amongst their greatest of all-time in European competition. The critics already had their pens sharpened. The memes were ready to go. But somehow, with a little sprinkling of video assistance, they’d stumbled through an exhausting evening and had emerged, rubbing their eyes and blinking, still very much in the competition.

Taken as a whole, though, this was as much a tie that Manchester City lost as Spurs won, and it might even be argued that it was ultimately decided in the first leg at White Hart Lane. Manchester City were ultimately toppled by their own inability to score an away goal but, from Sergio Aguero’s early penalty miss to last week to his straying offside a couple of minutes into stoppage-time last night, they created themselves the chances. Despite a tidal wave of pressure last night, though, the effective need to win the game by two clear goals proved to be a hurdle too far for them to leap. It’s barely as though they came across as wanting, either. Aguero, reprising the 2012 moment against Queens Park Ranger when he lit a familiar-looking light blue touch paper, lashed the ball into the goal from an angle to put City ahead on aggregate, just before the hour. Kevin De Bruyne, stricken by injury for so much of this season, was a glacially imperious midfield presence throughout, silent to the point of anonymity until he wasn’t any more and cutting through the Spurs midfield with laser-like precision. We talk a lot about who “deserves” what in football these days, and the performances of the Manchester City players probably “deserved” better than the nothing that they came away from this match with. That’s simply not how football works, though. Football is binary. You win as a team or you lose as a team.

Matches at this level are subject to a degree of preparation of which the watching public sees little. It is, however, difficult for any sort of script to be followed for a match in which Manchester City are involved. Within four minutes Raheem Sterling had swept them into a lead which hinted that Spurs’ destiny may simply end up being blown away by the home side. The following twenty minutes, however, rendered much of what had been written pre-match illegible. Spurs’ response, two goals in three minutes from Son Heung Min, might have strangled the tie completely against lesser opposition, but City kept rolling forward and by the time the dust began to settle again, they led by three to two and it felt as though little had been decided other than the scale of the task still ahead of Spurs over the remainder of the game, a feeling only compounded by the loss of Moussa Sissoko to injury shortly before half-time.

This loss threw Spurs’ position into the sharpest possible focus. Harry Kane was already injured and may be out for the season. Delle Alli was pressed into service despite a broken hand. The decision to replace Sissoko with Llorente would, under any other circumstances, have been perverse, but such is the threadbare nature of the remaining players available to Mauricio Pochettino that it was almost the only option at his disposal. The effect, however, was immediate. Manchester City pressed still harder, with the Spurs defence now looking like a dam fit to burst. Still, though, it took until the fourteenth minute of the second half before Aguero lashed in the fourth goal to finally swing City into the lead. Another opportunity to get back on a script which all concerned seemed to have forgotten had already been set on fire.

With seventeen minutes to play, however, the pendulum swung again, and it did so in a manner more in keeping with Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning than the latter stages of European football’s most prestigious club tournament, a corner swung over from the left that bounced in off… a part of Llorente. Delirium, followed by a collective inhalation of breath at the referee’s signal for VAR confirmation. The goal was given, and the fact that no-one seemed able to confirm whether the ball definitively did flick up off his wrist first or whether it did but that this made no difference to the trajectory of the ball seemed to justify the referee’s decision. The goal seemed to rattle Manchester City in a way that hadn’t been seen since that crazy opening twenty minutes. They stopped short of panic, but the fluidity of their forward momentum did, for the first time all evening, seem a little interrupted as the noise from a frantic capacity ground swelled even louder.

Two minutes into stoppage-time, though, they seemed to have found another way through, Aguero released on the right, Sterling to roll the ball in from close range. Again, though, the VAR interjected, and again the decision went in Spurs’ favour. It had briefly looked as though the freeing of Sergio Aguero had come about thanks to a moment of uncharacteristic muddle-headedness from Christian Eriksen, but the replay confirmed that the ball had skipped off the foot of Bernardo Silva on its way through, rendering Aguero offside. Intention doesn’t count in the case of the ball coming off the foot, and this intervention did feed the ball perfectly into the forward’s path, so again it looked like a correct decision. With only seconds remaining, the goal was chalked off. Wheezing and leaning on their collective crutches, somehow or other, Spurs had nudged their way through.

Modern football, it often feels, cannot survive without denigration. Spurs gonna Spurs. That sort of thing. Last night, though, such honking sounded singularly out of place. Heart-stopping drama, twists and turns worthy of a Hitchcock thriller, two heavyweights throwing everything at each other, and damn the consequences. Had the Llorente goal been disallowed or Sterling’s late effort not been called back there would have been no humiliation in losing this tie to this team for Spurs. They’d played their part and given their all with their resources stretched to breaking point. If modern football can allow for honour in defeat, this would have been such a moment. Patched up and out on their feet, though, Spurs just about did enough. They couldn’t silence City’s effervescence – the only team capable of doing that seem to be Manchester City themselves, and this happens with vanishing rarity these days – but they didn’t fold on the several different occasions when others might have.

For Manchester City, questions will be asked. Pep Guardiola’s recent run of abject fortune in the latter stages of the Champions League is now such a regular occurrence as to resemble a character flaw, even if it isn’t one, really. The tie was ultimately lost in the first leg, with a failure to score in London. How different might the psychology of last night have been for both sides had City gone into the second leg needing one goal to open up a three goal advantage over the remainder of the match? Sometimes, though, there can be no legislating for the twists and turns that a match can follow. This team is one of European football’s masters of the very basic philosophy that “if you score a goal, we’re just going to score more than you, and there’s not much you can do about that.” One of football’s greatest glories, however, is that no plan can ever be completely foolproof. There are too many variables at play. The stratification of elite professional football has led us to believe that this may no longer be true.

Click search. Find and replace “Spursy” with “Fraudiola.” The banterbus always departs its destination on time, and today its unwilling passenger is the Manchester City manager, strapped into his seat and listening to lectures from anyone with an opinion about his sheer incompetence, issued on the basis of that one knockout match per season and in the face of all other available data. In an age of extremes, such responses are inevitable. Not fair, not balanced, but inevitable nevertheless. None of these talking points, however, can ever allow for the shade of such a match, of which either team would have been a thoroughly deserving winner. After the final whistle had blown, Christian Eriksen, whose wayward moment of fallibility might otherwise have cost Spurs their semi-final place, told his television interviewer that “I think I must be the luckiest man alive at this moment.” Manchester City supporters aside, after having watched a match that had just about everything, the rest of us were all entitled to nod silently in agreement.