Manchester City and Atletico Madrid took major steps towards the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League with thrilling victories in the first legs of their last-16 ties on Wednesday.
Atletico Madrid, denied a penalty and a goal by VAR, finally took the lead after 78 minutes, with Jose Gimenez slamming in following a corner. His central defensive partner, Diego Godin, flicked in a second five minutes later to make it 2-0, leaving Juventus facing an early exit that, given its expenditure on Cristiano Ronaldo, would be a huge disappointment.
Man City, meanwhile, having been on the losing end of a VAR controversy of its own, ended up coming from behind with 10 men to beat Schalke 3-2 thanks to goals from Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in the final five minutes.
After a brief consultation with the VAR, here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
VAR debate front and center in both matches
It was another night of VAR debate, with both sides apparent. It was seen working at its best at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, as a penalty was initially awarded as Mattia De Sciglio pushed Diego Costa. Momentum had carried both well into the box, but a series of rapid replays demonstrated that contact had been made just outside the area and the spot kick was–rightly–converted into a free kick.
Rather less clear-cut was what happened in the second half, as Alvaro Morata had a goal ruled out after a two-minute delay for a supposed foul on Giorgio Chiellini. The referee had initially given the goal, and it’s hard to see how what was, at most, a slight nudge, could be deemed a clear and obvious error.
At the Veltins Arena in Germany, meanwhile, Daniel Caliguri’s 37th-minute shot clearly hit Nicolas Otamendi on the arm in the box, the only question being whether it was deliberate. It took almost three minutes while the decision was reached that it was–which seemed extremely harsh given Otamendi seemed to be trying to withdraw his arm and his arm was by his side and so in no sense in in an unnatural position–but, as the penalties given to France against Croatia and Iran against Portugal in the World Cup suggested, there is a built-in tendency of VAR to see any handball as deliberate.
Something shown a dozen times in slow motion does not necessarily give a clearer impression than the instinct of a referee in real time (which in this case had been to give a corner). Even worse, the referee on the field, Carlos del Cerro, was unable because of a technical fault to consult the touchline screen and so had to go by the verdict of his assistant. He then booked Otamendi for the handball, which of course then led to his second-half dismissal.
Most significant of all, perhaps, was the fact that in both instances, in Madrid and in Gelsenkirchen, the referee found himself surrounded by bickering players while listening on his headset to the VAR official. That is unseemly and cannot be conducive to making the correct decision.
Schalke burned by its ex
When Manchester City was struggling, down to 10 men, down a goal and seemingly devoid of ideas, it needed somebody to step up. And who else could it be but Sane, a player produced by Schalke, who stepped up to smack home a free kick with five minutes remaining? At the beginning of the season, Sane seemed a disaffected figure leading to rumors he might be on his way out of the Etihad, but in recent weeks he has been back in form, playing consistently at somewhere near his best.
This had looked like being a ridiculous defeat. Man City was coasting at 1-0 when it conceded that controversial penalty, and all self-belief seemed to ebb away. A second penalty, that one clear-cut, gave Schalke the lead before halftime, after which City, as it had previously against Leicester, Crystal Palace and Newcastle, lost its way.
But after Otamendi had been sent off for collecting a second yellow card–this one clearly deserved–City proved it did have the personality to respond and, via Sane’s right foot, the ability to swerve a 25-yard shot into the corner at some pace.
Sterling then added the winner–and a third away goal at that–and City had a win that may be worth far more to it than the straightforward victory it had looked to be cruisin towards after half an hour.
A culture clash of etiquette
Protocol when a player is injured should be relatively straightforward. It’s the job of the referee to stop the game, and he should only do that in the case of a head injury or something extremely serious. But in the early 90s it became standard practice for teams to put the ball out when they saw an opponent as hurt. What began as a sportsmanlike gesture was soon exploited, though, with players looking to waste time or break up counters feigning injury and expecting their opponents to knock the ball out of play. That led to a backlash, and the authorities stressed that stopping the game was the job of the referee alone. Almost 30 years later, though, confusion remains, with the custom varying from country to country.
Certainly in the Premier League, nobody would expect an opponent to put the ball out for an injury. Perhaps it’s different in Germany, but what was bewildering about Schalke’s fury at Manchester City’s opener was that City didn’t have the ball to put out when Mark Uth went down. Schalke, actually, had it, and rather than hitting the ball over the touchline so Uth could receive treatment, it knocked the ball casually around. Eventually Salif Sane, played into trouble by goalkeeper Ralf Fahrman, was dispossessed by David Silva, who squared for Sergio Aguero to score his 10th goal in his last seven games. Schalke protested, but it had had every opportunity to stop the play.