Pep Guardiola’s men thought they had pulled off a sensational comeback in a crazy game with Tottenham but VAR disallowed their injury-time ‘winner’
If you ever wondered what the anti-93:20 moment was like, this was it… Have you ever seen such a dramatic defeat for any side, in such remarkable circumstances?
Manchester City thought they had done it. They thought Raheem Sterling had scored a hat-trick deep, deep into stoppage time. The players were celebrating in the corner, Pep Guardiola was jumping on anybody he could get close to.
There were a full 30 seconds of the wildest celebrations, on par with that dramatic Sergio Aguero winner against Queens Park Rangers in 2012.
This was the equal of that.
And then it wasn’t.
VAR intervened and before anybody knew anything about it, the moment was snatched away. Delirium turned to despair. Utter despair.
What a way to go out of any competition, what a way for the Quadruple dream to be snatched away!
For all the goals scored on the night, this was about the one that wasn’t. City go out on away goals, 4-4, after an incredible night that would have lived long in the memory even without that most unlikely of endings.
Where to start with analysing it?
Ultimately, City’s defeat over two legs will be traced back to the first in London a week ago, when Guardiola played a cautious game in the hope of keeping things tight and winning the tie at the Etihad Stadium.
They did indeed win here in Manchester, and what a win it was, but thanks to that narrow 1-0 defeat a week ago it was somehow not enough.
And thanks to that moment of utter heartbreak right at the death, it feels not just like narrow defeat but the end of the world.
How could anybody split these two sides over the two legs? If anything, City were better. Sure, they were not themselves in the first leg but they never set out to be.
The first-leg analysis has been done to death now but had Sergio Aguero scored that penalty how this would have all been so different, but after the events on Wednesday that seems like a complete irrelevance.
The start to the second leg was crazy, with Sterling kicking things off with a perfectly measured finish. There was nothing perfectly measured about the rest of the half, with Aymeric Laporte contributing to two quick-fire Heung-min Son goals that were excellently taken.
Ilkay Gundogan said a week ago that City’s reaction to Aguero’s missed penalty effectively cost them the game, but there was nothing that could be faulted in their reaction to the two Son goals here, even if they certainly did contribute to them.
Bernardo Silva quickly levelled thanks to a deflection and then Sterling arrived at the back post to tap in a perfect Kevin De Bruyne cross.
It was 3-2 at half-time and City only needed one more to go through. They probably planned to be 1-0 up at the break and 2-0 up by the end and, after all the madness subsided, that was effectively still the case.
They had the upper hand, too, as Moussa Sissoko’s injury meant Fernando Llorente had to come on, and Spurs had suddenly lost their threat on the break. Llorente, of course, does have his strengths, but he rarely had the chance to use them as City kept up their relentless attacking.
And then they got the goal that would have sent them through, Ilkay Gundogan picking out De Bruyne, De Bruyne picking out Aguero, and Aguero picking out the back of the net.
City were finally in a position that would have sent them through and then suddenly they weren’t. A succession of corners brought Llorente into play. Laporte was marking him but somehow the ball was allowed to drop to hip level, and via some kind of combination of elbow and hip Llorent scored at the near post.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir took an age to consult VAR but he couldn’t be certain there was a clear and obvious error, so stuck with the original decision to award the goal.
Still, a team like City, in this kind of mood, were perfectly capable of scoring in the final 10 minutes. They had some chances in regulation time, too, but Gundogan, in particular, flicked over the the near post.
And then the moment came. Aguero, who had been a terrier all night, got the ball, turned and played it forwards. It found Sterling, who kept his head, cut inside and fired in with his left foot.
But nobody in the stadium had spotted that Aguero, what seemed an age before the ball hit the back of the net, was offside. But while City fans embraced each other like it was 2012 all over again, somebody in the VAR truck did.
And that was that. Both decisions, the Spurs goal and City’s non-goal, were correct, there is no disputing that. But what a cruel way for any side to go out.
The question for City now is how they react. They have their biggest two matches of the season still to come, and amazingly it is Spurs who will be here yet again on Saturday.
On the plus side for City, you would have to say they have five or six players who did not start here that could come in and make a telling contribution. Tottenham, who gave everything, do not have that depth.
But it will take some effort for City to rouse themselves again and attack relentlessly like they did here. All of that effort for no reward. Never before has a victory felt more like a defeat.