There is a reason why Champions League football holds such pull and grandeur at the rarefied level of this sport, and much of it is down to the sheer unpredictability and reduced margin of error which teams have, and that means upsets are galore. The best laid plans can go awry, and as Mike Tyson so eloquently (pardon the oxymoron here) put- everyone has a plan till they are punched in the face. Nowhere does that punch hurt hardest than at this stage of football.
The quarter finals of the Champions League between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs was billed as the clash of the nouveau riche versus the underdogs. Narratives in this sport are quickly built and demolished, so its not advisable to read too much into that for the sake of any deeper analysis. Manchester City (“City”) came into this tie a goal down. Tottenham Hotspurs (“Spurs”) had secured a narrow 1-0 victory at their home, and while neither team were entirely convincing in the first leg, Son Heung-Min had ensured that his team were in the tie courtesy a solo goal that was as much a result of his awareness of space as that of Fabian Delph’s (“Delph”) utter lack of defensive nous in giving him that space in a crucial area of the pitch. Delph is not a left back by trade, and that bit showed why. There is a legitimate discussion to be had whether Guardiola played it a little too safe in the first leg; for instance, wrapping Kevin De Bruyne (“KDB”) in cotton wool considering he had only started making brief appearances since his return from injury or not choosing to start Bernardo Silva because of a niggle he sustained in training. Hindsight is a bitch, they say, and also the most convenient lens through which to examine past events. Every team that made its way into the semi-finals this year had an away goal against their name. Coincidence? Maybe.
With all that being said, this was poised to be an interesting tie given the underlying quality of the players and their respective managers. However, not even the most ardent of football fans would have expected what transpired in those initial 15 minutes or so. City scored twice, Spurs scored twice, and for the first time in Champions League history four goals had been scored within the opening 11 minutes of a single Champions League match. Bonkers.
Raheem Sterling, KDB, Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker- take a bow! They played the game of their lives and the incision, will, and skill to cut through Spurs at will was a sight to behold. KDB really came into his own in this match and his driving runs through midfield and those beautiful arcs that he creates when shaping it into the City attackers like a whip is just joyous to watch. Sterling has gone up several gears ever since Guardiola took over and nowhere is this more evident than his composure and threat in the final third which now looks a certainty rather than the hesitancy which he was associated with before. Bernardo Silva is a worker bee disguised as a magician- the sheer amount of ground he covers while being at the right place, making the right runs, and being a constant menace in the final third is what makes him such a complete midfielder and he can walk into any side in the world today in that form. Kyle Walker was tireless with his runs from deep and he ably dropped into midfield whenever necessary. In particular, his runs coming from the right into the middle was a constant threat to Spurs and they had no option but to foul him in crucial areas as a result.
Where City lost this, and it’s a bit ironic considering his form throughout the season and his importance to the back line, is Aymeric Laporte. He looked off balance from the first minute, and looked half the player he is. He seemed rushed, and was found whacking the passes to his team mates rather than caressing them as he is used to, and Spurs’ first two goals came directly as a result of errors made by him. This was entirely his fault as Spurs were not too keen on pressing City that hard. In tennis, they would be called unforced errors. However, such is the nature of the competition that you just cannot get away with errors like that in the span of 180 mins. Sergio Aguero’s penalty miss in the first leg included.
Spurs really had the strangest of nights. While they did incredibly well to take advantage of what City offered them on a platter, they never really looked like they were in the game at any point because of the way City were dominating passages of play. Even when Son scored the equalizer on the night and City needed three, it never looked like curtains for City. Losing Moussa Sissoko likely contributed to the easiness with which City were cutting through them time and again, and Mauricio Pochettino (“Pochettino”) will be hoping he can have a fit Wanyama for the remainder of the season because their midfield is looking incredibly light at the moment. Dele Alli may not be the one to turn to in crucial matches because it deprives Spurs of his more threatening qualities in the final third in the absence of Harry Kane. Spurs really deserve a lot of credit for coming out of this tie, although bruised and battered, while making their first semi-finals since 1962. They will play a fearless Ajax in the semis, and Pochettino can feel a bit of relief after what has been a testing season for him in terms of keeping it all together when so much was happening around him. Playing City again, at their home in the league, will be tricky though.
The game was not deprived of controversy, as was evident in how the VAR (“Video Assisted Refereeing”) came into the picture. First, the referee Cuneyt Cakir had to seek its help in deciding whether Fernando Llorente had handled the ball enroute to his headed goal, and then to determine whether Sergio Aguero was offside when City had scored in the dying moments of the game and at which point it looked they had gone through to the semi finals. VAR is one of those things that can be particularly cruel, more so when a team has celebrated like there was no tomorrow and then they hear the referee speaking into his earpiece and consulting the video of the incident. Its a bit like taking candy from a kid. Imagine telling the kid that he won’t get the candy, while whispering in his ear that the candy never belonged to him. All of this after you let the kid have a taste of it. Needless to say, City fell on the wrong side of the VAR this time and they might have little to complain about it. Pep Guardiola thought that the handball decision was unfair, but that is understandable given the range of emotions a manager of that caliber goes through after such a mentally sapping game. Objectively, it wasn’t.
Guardiola and his team will be back next year, and in the meanwhile they have the task of keeping their Premier League ambitions afloat when they meet Spurs again this weekend. Pochettino will be beaming, and who wouldn’t? A season of dealing with the uncertainty of Spurs’ new stadium and relocation will be offset by their semi final appearance against the brilliant lads of Ajax. He won’t be the underdog anymore.