Saturday, April 20, 2024

Champions League Discussion: Spurs, City, VAR and Premier League Reflections

The best Champions League game ever. In my opinion, it’s that simple. When the quarter final draw had been made between Manchester City and Tottenham, I think every football fan would have been right in expecting a decent tie over two legs. With Juventus playing Ajax, Liverpool facing Porto, and Manchester United battling Barcelona, the quarter final stage of Europe’s elite football competition seemed mouth watering.

Despite the delicious looking fixtures, I believed that I had already seen the most spectacular sight of this seasons Champions League campaign. In the Last 16 United had come from 2-0 down to secure a shocking 3-1 win in Paris following an aftermath of huge VAR controversy in which Marcus Rashford coolly dispatched the winning penalty.

Then the City Vs Spurs game came along. By all accounts, the first leg appeared to be nothing too memorable. Sergio Aguero saw his penalty saved by Hugo Lloris in what would turn out to be a vital moment throughout the course of the tie. Son would later score the only goal of the leg as Spurs marked their first Champions League match at their new stadium with a victory and a clean sheet.

Arguably the biggest talking point from the the fixture in North London was that of Harry Kane’s ankle injury. The most recent set back for England’s captain will not only more than likely see him miss the rest of the season, but potentially England’s UEFA Nations League campaign as well. As well as Tottenham have done when Kane has been missing this season, his lack of availability for the rest of the season could have proven to have been a real problem in the reverse clash at the Etihad and may yet prove to be decisive in their pursuit to finish in the top four.

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Spurs lost Captain, Harry Kane, in the first leg. Image © Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Manchester City Vs Spurs Champions League Match – Under The Microscope:

When the game kicked off on Wednesday, it could not have have got off to a quicker start as Raheem Sterling lit the blue touch paper by curling a sweet strike into the bottom far corner after four minutes., making the scores level on aggregate at 1-1.

Spurs responded to the opening setback with interest through vicious blows of their own. Twice Son Heung Min pounced on horrific, uncharacteristic errors from Aymeric Laporte and gave Spurs a 3-1 lead through two precious away goals after only a mere ten minutes of second leg football. At that point I honestly thought the tie was done.

However, Pochetinno’s men gave themselves no time to settle or slow the game down and thus suck the life out of a home crowd unable to blink for fear of missing any action. A minute after conceding, the restless Bernado Silva struck back at Spurs through a deflected effort which Lloris was unable to keep out.

After the most frantic opening 11 minutes in Champions League history, Pep Guardiola’s side started to get a grip on the game. City started retaining possession, the passing much crisper and accurate enabled the Sky Blues to look dangerous going forward as Sterling had his England colleague Kieran Trippier on toast and Kevin De Bruyne appeared to have eagle vision, such was the accuracy of the balls he played.

The Sky Blues pressure paid off 10 minutes after Silva had pulled City back into it as De Bruyne played a sublime ball across the six yard box for Sterling to lash home.

There finally appeared to be some goal scoring respite from both sides. Moussa Sissoko fell victim to an injury which resulted in him being replaced by Fernando Llorente which helped to slow the play down as the two teams entered the half time dressing room with an aggregate score of 3-3.

The second half saw City start swiftly once again, the injury to Sissoko and his replacement of striker Llorente had left Spurs light in midfield, allowing the hosts to swarm pressure on the away side. The Noisy Neighbours broke through the North London side’s defence via a typical Sergio Aguero lash of a finish inside the box after some excellent skill and a pass from De Bruyne 58 minutes into the game.

Though City controlled most of the ball in the second half, the beauty of the away goals rule in the Champions League meant that Spurs would go through to the semi-final providing that they could finish the game with a level score on aggregate. As a result, despite the home team being ahead by one goal, the tension from only being one goal away from elimination never wavered within the Etihad and every time Spurs had the opportunity to break out of City’s suffocating grip, the hosts found themselves holding their own breath.

After a breakaway, Spurs earned themselves a corner just after 70 minutes. Super-sub Llorente would power himself to the ball ahead of anyone else, bundling it into the net from the cross. VAR was called into action for a potential handball from Llorente, yet after what felt like an age of looking at two views of the incident, the referee deemed that the goal stand. The score stood at 4-4 on aggregate with Spurs heading through to the semi-final on away goals.

The action was far from finished. For the rest of the game City plugged away in search for a winning goal once again. Two minutes into extra-time Christian Eriksen’s loose backwards pass nicked off Bernardo Silva and dropped to Manchester City’s greatest ever striker, Aguero. Rather than go for goal, the Argentine international played the ball to Sterling, who’s effort proved just strong enough to beat Hugo Lloris.

The Etihad erupted! Guardiola was down the touchline in joy while City players swarmed their hatrick hero and saviour, Sterling. Spurs and Pochettino were crestfallen after such a hard thought battle. It was a game that truly neither side deserved to lose.

Yet still, the drama insisted on lingering for just a little longer. Amidst the celebrations, the notification of a VAR check pinged onto the Etihad screens like a text message of death. The replays showed quite clearly and quickly that when the ball ricocheted off Silva, Aguero was clearly offside. The goal was chalked off and Spurs were able to keep City at bay for the remaining three minutes of added time to ensure that they made it to their first ever Champions League Semi-Final.

I feel both teams deserve huge praise for an outstanding tie. I believe it was the most entertaining and exciting Champions League fixture I’ve ever seen and it was a fantastic advert for the skill, athleticism and competitiveness of English football and the Premier League.

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Llorente celebrates his decisive goal. Image © 90Min

VAR Reflection:

Within this fantastic tie, their were two huge moments for VAR. Before I delve into the individual moments of the game, I have to look at the presence of VAR in the Champions League in the first place.

As with the Premier League, going into this seasons Champions League campaign, it was decided that VAR was not to be used. However, after the group stages of Champions League, UEFA changed their minds and decided that VAR would be in use for the knockout stages of the competition.

In my opinion, this greatly effects the consistency of this seasons competition. Teams may have already qualified from or been knocked out of the competition due to the absence of VAR and introducing it midway through the competition is unfair on those that may have benefited from it’s use at the start. I feel that if UEFA had warmed to the idea of VAR, then they should have waited until the start of next season before implementing it into the competition in the same way that the Premier League will not have VAR until next season, with English clubs having altered its opinion on VAR.

However, once the decision was made to use VAR, it is absolutely vital that the technology is used correctly. By definition, it should only be used to make clear and obvious decisions. In regards to the City Vs Spurs game, I believe they got one decision horribly wrong and the other spot on.

For Spurs’ winning goal, a replay showed quite clearly that the ball hit Llorente’s hand on its route to the goal. Though I don’t believe that Llorente deliberately handled the ball, a goal simply cannot stand after coming off the attackers hand/arm, regardless of whether there was an intent to handle or not as the attacker has still gained an advantage from the ball hitting their hand.

After being told to take a second look at the incident, the referee was shown two views that left the referee uncertain of what part of Llorente the ball had come off. Considering that the best angle of the incident literally came up on a BT Sport replay before the referee had a chance to review the incident, I find it incredible that they failed to give the referee the correct view of the replay.

The ESPN Panel gave their verdict on the Llorente handball situation.

However, the second time VAR was called into action, it got the decision spot on. As the ball deflect off Bernardo Silva, Sergio Aguero had strayed offside by a couple of yards. The use of VAR on this occasion was quick, decisive and lead to the correct outcome. A clear and obvious incident is exactly what VAR was brought in for and I hope its use is continued in instances similar to this.

Premier League Aftermath:

Following the most entertaining Champions League game I have ever seen. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur found themselves facing off against each other once again, this time in the Premier League. For City, noting other than three points would do as they looked to keep the title race in their hands. Spurs on the other hand were also looking for three points to help cement a spot in the top four, if not third place.

The Premier League fixture in contrast to to the European match turned out to be much more gritty, with less goals. And with different victors! This time the hosts emerged from the clash with a 1-0 win to keep title rivals Liverpool at bay. Despite Liverpool besting Cardiff on Sunday, if City can defeat neighbours United on Wednesday, the league crown will be within touching distance.

Despite defeat at the hands of City, Spurs were able occupy third place on Tuesday night courtesy of a 1-0 home victory over Brighton. With top four rivals Manchester United suffering a heavy 4-0 loss away at Everton, Arsenal succumbing to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace at the Emirates, and Chelsea being held to a 2-2 draw by Burnley, automatic qualification for Champions League football is very much in Spurs’ grasp.

Champions League Semi-Final:

In terms of the semi-final of the Champions League, Spurs must consider themselves favourites to make the final. As impressive as this young Ajax side have been, knocking out holders Real Madrid and favourites Juventus, this is both Spurs and Pochettino’s biggest chance for glory and they cannot waste it.

Victory would mean that only Liverpool or Barcelona would stand in their way in a one-off final that anyone can win. An incredible feat for a team that bought no players in the most recent summer and winter transfer windows. If the semi-finals are anything like the previous round, I cannot wait!

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