In a span of four days, there is a chance Manchester City could go from playing for everything to prospects where they win barely anything.
Undoubtedly still emotionally raw from their stunning exit from the Champions League, the Cityzens face another crunch match at the Etihad versus Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday to take the provisional lead atop the Premier League.
For 62 seconds at the Etihad on Wednesday night, the dream of claiming all four trophies – Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Premier League, and Champions League – reached a fever pitch for City and their supporters. Raheem Sterling had just beaten Hugo Lloris following a turnover by Spurs in their own third, with the England international completing a hat trick in the third minute of stoppage time to give Manchester City (27-2-4) a 5-3 lead that would have allowed them to progress to the Champions League semifinals on aggregate.
The sense of jubilation among City players and despair through Tottenham Hotspur, though, was reversed when the giant video screen read “No goal, VAR, offside.” The goal was correctly chalked off after replays showed Sergio Aguero was offside when the ball was deflected in his direction. The removal of the goal meant the two-legged tie was again deadlocked 4-4, with Spurs the victors through the away goal rule.
It was the last stunning memorable act of a game to be remembered for decades to come, 90-plus minutes of frenzied football in which there were four goals alone in the opening, breathtaking first 11 minutes through scintillating offence and slapdash defending. Sterling and Tottenham counterpart Heung-Min Son each recorded a brace, with Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings of City’s offence in jaw-dropping fashion to set up the first, second, and fourth goals.
“I am so proud, especially of the fans for the reaction and the incredible reaction. I never saw the stadium like today,” manager Pep Guardiola told City’s official website. “We are sad for all of them but they know we have given everything but football is unpredictable and unfortunately we are not in the next stage.
“Today we make mistakes for first two (goals). Every team has quality to do that. What we have done in these two seasons is incredible and I am so proud. The players played to be in the semi-finals but Tottenham take the victory and go through.”
Fernando Llorente’s goal on 73 minutes – one confirmed by VAR after there were claims of handball – proved to be the decisive as Pep Guardiola was again denied a chance at winning a third Champions League trophy and stopped short of making his first semifinal appearance since arriving in Manchester in 2016.
“We have to stand up and react,” Guardiola added, realising there is still so much at stake as his side continue to stalk Liverpool for a second straight Premier League title. “Now it’s time to think not too much now. We have to try to sleep as much as possible and the day before the game we are going to prepare the game.
“We fought for nine or 10 months in the Premier League. Still we are there. It is in our hands. Of course it is tough and we have to do it until the end.”
It is the second straight year Guardiola will have to come to a self-reckoning of sorts with his first-leg Champions League lineup selection that contributed to City’s ouster in the second. With De Bruyne looking imperious through the midfield, it will be asked why he and Leroy Sane were relegated to late cameos in their 1-0 loss at White Hart Lane last week that led to them chasing a result Wednesday.
But that day will come later. The present all but requires City to sweep their final five matches of the run-in to pip Liverpool and successfully defend their title, and this is the first of two high-stakes league matches in five days that will likely make or break their league campaign.
Guardiola and his club will make the seven-kilometer trek east to Old Trafford on Tuesday for a derby versus eternal rivals United – their match in hand on Liverpool which will transform the race into a dead sprint for the final three match days. It is uncertain what kind of squad rotation Guardiola will make – if any – but rebounding from this loss and playing these next two matches will require plenty of emotional fortitude.
“We don’t have time to think about this because we play Tottenham again on Saturday,” left back Benjamin Mendy said. “It isn’t easy, but we must focus on the Premier League and the FA Cup. “We gave everything we could but we cannot complain about the VAR – those are the rules and we have to respect them.
“Our fans were fantastic but it wasn’t to be and we move on.”
Tottenham (22-1-10) can only celebrate their first Champions League semifinal appearance in club history for only so long as there is still a top-four place to be won for next season should they not get past Ajax or fail to win the title. The Lilywhites will make this run without striker Harry Kane – expected to be out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury – but for Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, the primary goal Is recovery and maintaining resiliency from such an exhausting match to try and maintain their tenuous hold on third in the table.
“For the players, it’s about recovery. We’ll assess them,” he explained to the club’s official website. “Some players finished the game with some problems and now we need a starting 11, fresh and with plenty of energy (for Saturday). That’s why we need to assess them and give them time to recover.
“We need to keep our feet on the grass and be humble, that’s most important. We need to keep working hard. We know very well in football that you not only need to work hard but to believe, to have faith and have a little luck as well. Today is fantastic but look back to November, we suffered, no-one believed in us. It was a difficult moment. But fighting all together, we turned that energy and turned everything positive.”
Pochettino will likely have to make at least one change from Wednesday’s first XI as Moussa Sissoko was forced off late in the first half with what appeared to be a groin injury. Oliver Skipp would appear to be the most like-for-like replacement considering both Eric Dier and Harry Winks are still sidelined through injury.
Son’s brace lifted him to the 20-goal mark in all competitions, with three of them coming in the two legs versus City. The South Korea international has 10 goals in 18 matches across all contests since the start of the calendar year.
While it may feel hollow, City can still do the league double over Spurs for the second straight season after winning 1-0 at Wembley in October as Riyad Mahrez’s goal in the sixth minute separated the sides. Including Wednesday’s second-leg 4-3 win, the Cityzens are 7-1-1 in their last nine home matches versus Tottenham.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Tottenham Hotspur 2.
(Heung-Min Son photo courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)