MANCHESTER, England – More than two minutes into stoppage time, Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling slid across the field and puffed his chest to the crowd, roaring in elation. Tottenham players collapsed to the turf, some flat on their backs, forlorn and heartbroken.
From the brink of Champions League elimination, Manchester City was celebrating its passage to the semifinals.
Not for long.
As City manager Pep Guardiola was leaping on the touchline, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was receiving updates in his ear from the video assistant referee checking replays.
The stadium soon became hushed until the big screen flashed: “No goal. VAR. Offside.”
Guardiola threw his head in his hands, but there was nothing to argue about.
When Christian Eriksen’s misplaced back-pass deflected off Bernardo Silva into the path of Sergio Aguero, the City striker was offside before setting up Sterling in the penalty area.
“It’s cruel,” Guardiola said.
There would be no eighth goal on this breathtaking night of epic drama. Tottenham advanced on away goals following Wednesday’s 4-3 loss that left the teams tied 4-4 on aggregate.
City’s quadruple dreams were extinguished. Guardiola, a Champions League-winning coach with Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, failed to reach the semifinals for the sixth straight time, his third with City after three misses with Bayern Munich.
Instead, Tottenham reached to its first European Cup semifinal in 57 years and will play Ajax. Liverpool meets Barcelona following a 6-1 aggregate win over Porto, giving England multiple clubs in the semifinals for the first time since Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in 2009.
Tottenham advanced thanks to Fernando Llorente’s hip, which nudged the ball into the net in the 73rd minute for a goal that survived a VAR review for possible handball. It was the last goal of a night that will be long remembered by clubs that lived in the shadows of larger rivals in their own cities.
“That is why we love football, we feel the passion,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said.” We enjoy watching football, anything can happen.
“Today we showed our great character, great personality. To score three goals against Manchester City is not easy.”
Not when top-scorer Harry Kane was out through injury. Not when the midfield options were so depleted that an injury to Moussa Sissoko before halftime before Pochettino to bring on out-of-favor center forward Llorente.
And Tottenham will play the first leg against Ajax without Son Heung-min – Kane’s understudy who scored the valuable first-leg goal last week. Son scored Tottenham’s first two goals at Etihad Stadium, then picked up a booking for a foul on Kevin De Bruyne that earned him a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.
The South Korean showed just how influential he is for Tottenham in a start unlike anything seen before in the Champions League.
Four goals in the opening 11 minutes. The fifth in the 21st minute, after five shots on target.
“The first 10 minutes of this game and the last five was fairytale stuff,” Eriksen said.
Sterling put City ahead in just the fourth minute. Son then netted twice to put City in a position where it had to score three more goals to advance.
City did just that to take a 4-2 lead, only for Llorente – and the VAR – to have the last say.
“It was a very tough game, a very crazy game,” Son said. “Sometimes you are annoyed with VAR but today it is a case of, ‘Thank you and good decision.“’
Sterling got the action started when he received the ball from De Bruyne and evaded Kieran Trippier before bending the ball into the corner past Hugo Lloris.
Within three minutes, Tottenham regained its aggregate advantage after Aymeric Laporte’s clearance from Lucas Moura’s through ball set up Son to level on the night.
Laporte was again at fault when he gave the ball away in the 10th on the halfway line, setting Moura free to set up Son to put Tottenham 2-1 up.
Not for long. Barely a minute.
Silva was left in space on the right flank to collect the ball and poke it through Danny Rose’s legs and into the net in the 21st.
“I looked at Pep,” Pochettino recalled, “and we said, ‘Unbelievable!“’
After that dizzying spell, there was a full 10 minutes before the ball ended up in the net again.
A back-heel from Silva set up De Bruyne, who crossed for Sterling to slide in at the back post.
City 3, Tottenham 2. Five goals in 21 minutes, but with Tottenham still going through thanks to Son’s first-leg goal.
The second half began with a City onslaught but Lloris’s diving save kept out Sterling’s low shot and one-handed save palmed an effort from De Bruyne around a post.
The first flickers of a Spurs threat in the second half came when Llorente dived in with a header but it lacked power and was blocked by goalkeeper Ederson.
And the momentum swung again when City scored its fourth in the 59th.
Ilkay Gundogan’s crossfield pass landed at the feet of De Bruyne, who drove forward before slipping the ball through to Aguero who beat Lloris at his near post with a powerful shot.
For the first time on the night, City was in front on aggregate and on course for its second Champions League semifinal.
But the hosts couldn’t close the game out.
When Trippier whipped in a corner, Llorente rose and turned the ball into the net with his hip.
The celebrations were put on hold when the referee went to the touchline to check if the ball came off Llorente’s arm, but the goal stood.
As the Premier League champions chased the goal that would sent them through, Aguero had a header saved by Lloris and an effort from Gundogan was scooped over.
When Sterling did find the net again, VAR intervened to leave the home fans crushed. That is a rare feeling at the Etihad Stadium, 11 years into the club’s influx of cash from Abu Dhabi.
Guardiola’s side was knocked out of a competition for the first time this season after a title in the League Cup and advancement to the FA Cup final while challenging Liverpool for the league title.
In the Premier League, Tottenham is far from competing what would be its first English title since 1961. Coping without any new signings this season, the team is fighting for a top four finish and a Champions League places.
The north London club will qualify anyway if it wins European football’s top prize for the first time.
Before then, City and Tottenham have to do it all again – with an instant domestic reunion on Saturday.
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