Admit it, who really thought that Tottenham would see a way past Manchester City- a club who have poured hundreds of millions of English pounds into their team to win the Champions League- but that is what Tottenham did. The very same Tottenham who bought no players in either transfer window this season and then lost Harry Kane to injury.
This week which saw the fall of Juventus and their £100m Ronaldo gamble to the youth of Ajax and the grace and sheer class of Lionel Messi’s one man show for Barcelona against Manchester United, there was an even bigger story that will live on in the hearts of football fans everywhere.
Tottenham playing Manchester City was always going to be a big draw- indeed any two teams from the same country playing each other in the latter stage knock outs of the Champions League means the football world will pay attention. Unfortunately though there is an uncanny way for these games to play out with very few goals and a cagey nervous affair where each team cancels out each other- the 2003 Champions League final anyone? When Milan only seized victory over Juventus in a penalty shoot out after spending 120 minutes consoling over a 0-0 result.
In some ways this is how the first leg of this match did play out. City remained the favourites but it was Tottenham who got a 1-0 victory- their first European game at their new stadium no less, through a Son Heung-Min goal. Ever the darer and the saviour for Tottenham this season, the South Korean player has stepped up in the past 12 months. For City they played an unusual game, desperate for clear cut chances and perhaps some of the blame could have gone to coach Pep Guardiola with his tactics and starting choices. Those decisions looked like it would be made up for the 2nd leg, but let’s face it nobody was prepared for what would happen at the Etihad.
Going into the crucial next match, City knew that they had to score two goals or they would be out. It took them less than 250 seconds to get the first goal through the irreplaceable Raheem Sterling. And then something quite wonderful (if you’re not a City fan happened) because it was at the stage when ball left Son and hit the back of the net for Tottenham’s equaliser that Spurs, the team that play great football, but the pretenders to titles did not read the script.
When Son struck again to put the Londoners 2-1 up three minutes later all of a sudden all of the hard work behind the scenes, rooted in the tiresome work of Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching staff and the vision of club owner Daniel Levy came to the forefront, and we could embrace the fact that this club, Spurs, have stepped up to another level, one not seen in a generation.
That didn’t mean that Guardiola’s side were dead on their feet, no team at home that plays such beautiful attacking football was suddenly going to give up, with 80 minutes still to play City had time on their side. They needed to score 3 goals and one was pulled back 60 seconds after Son had roared away with a semi final and Ajax in his sights. Bernardo Silva was the man to give City hope and ten minutes after that Sterling struck again- this was madness. We had witnessed 5 goals in 21 barnstorming moments of English football, played mostly by wonderful continental footballers in a European Cup setting. There had been a goal every 4 mins and 20 seconds, and it felt too much even, you didn’t know what was going to happen next. And it got better.
The first half ended 3-2 to City who now only needed one more goal to go through. As the second half got underway it was apparent that the Goliath which is City was steadily taking the game away from the David which was Spurs. City were playing their game and most notably the Belgian Kevin De Bruyne so cruelly not picked by Guardiola to start in the first leg was playing one of his best matches this season, and when it mattered, underlining just how important he is to the side.
Just before the hour mark Tottenham’s dream inevitably caved in when Sergio Aguero (who else)? made it 4-2 to City, and now City were going through to only their second semi final. Tottenham had to score but it was City controlling the pace of the game. And yet as crazy as the match was playing out, you knew Tottenham would get their chance and 14 minutes later the ball fell to Fernando Llorente who with a hip, elbow? and force- got the ball in the net. If any doubts persisted on the legality of the goal then VAR crushed it and Tottenham got their goal. Now they were going through and City were going out.
City attacked, Spurs stayed firm and the minutes closed in- neutral football fans couldn’t breathe, to be a fan of either club defined a new term in squeaky bum syndrome and yet the drama was not over. City needed another goal and as the 90th minute came and went all looked lost until Sterling scored again- it was in, the goal sent Sterling, the fans and Guardiola into euphoria, until VAR flagged up an incident. Was Sergio Aguero offside when the ball was played back in? Hearts in mouths, and what drama, the time ticked by in the real world but stood still for the 53,000 fans inside the stadium. The verdict came back…. Goal denied- City were out of the Champions League and Tottenham had reached their first European Cup semi final in 57 years and their first ever Champions League one.
It was an incredible night of football- with the players as much as VAR in the end playing its role. City could feel hard done by- without VAR they would most probably have squeezed through, but with justice intended they didn’t. And one would have to criticise a team at this stage of the competition for conceding 4 goals over 2 games. Yes Tottenham did the same, but for City the Champions League was supposed to be the one endearing trophy that the club have been wanting to win.
As for Tottenham they have a new role, as the remaining last 4 team. They will play Ajax- unfortunate for them it is an Ajax who look back to their best, they have already knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus from this competition. If they get past that test it is Liverpool or Barcelona in the final.
As for this game it will be remembered as one of the most exciting Champions League matches and will be talked about for some time. And there will be no love lost between the clubs who in less than 72 hours will do this all over again in the Premier League in the same stadium, one can only imagine what will happen….