Tottenham and Manchester City combined for seven goals, but it was one controversially disallowed in stoppage time that produced the difference, sending Spurs to the semifinals and Pep Guardiola's side tumbling out of the competition.
The Champions League over the past couple of years has developed a habit of delivering extraordinary drama in the later stages, but nothing quite like this.
Tottenham Hotspur reached a European cup semifinal for the first time in 57 years, beating Manchester City on away goals after a 4-3 second-leg defeat, but the bald facts give little sense of what was a thrilling game for the ages.
The start at the Etihad was preposterous. Raheem Sterling put City ahead after three minutes with a precise-angled shot, but by the 10 minute two Son Heung-min goals had put Spurs ahead and 3-1 up on aggregate. Within a minute, though, it was 2-2 on the day, with Bernando Silva’s shot deflecting in off Danny Rose. Ten minutes after that, Sterling slammed in Bernardo’s cross from a narrow angle to make it 3-2 to City on the night.
City then took control and went 4-3 up on aggregate through Sergio Aguero, only for Fernando Llorente to bundle in the series winner with 17 minutes remaining, restoring Tottenham's away-goals tiebreaker edge. Sterling thought he'd won it in stoppage time, but a controversial VAR review ruled Aguero to be offside in the build-up, wiping the goal off the board and paving the way for Tottenham to go through to the semifinals.
Liverpool didn’t have it all its own way vs. Porto, but, already 2-0 up from the first leg, Jurgen Klopp’s side essentially secured its progress to the last four when Sadio Mane touched in Mohamed Salah’s pass after 26 minutes.
Salah added to the advantage in the 65th, and although Eder Militao pulled one back, Roberto Firmino made absolutely certain with 13 minutes remaining, before Virgil van Dijk made it 4-1 on the night and 6-1 on aggregate.
Wednesday's results set up a pair of intriguing semifinals, with Tottenham facing Ajax and Liverpool squaring off vs. Barcelona–a homecoming of sorts for Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho–for places in the June 1 final in Madrid.
Here are three thoughts on a wild day in the Champions League:
Pochettino's approach pays off
There are two ways of taking City on. Opponents can take the risk of pressing high up the pitch, or they can sit deep and look to absorb pressure. From the start, Tottenham took the former option. By playing a diamond, Spurs generated an extra man in the middle of midfield, which helped prevent City from dominating possession in the way it sometimes can. The cost, though, was a lack of cover wide, which, in turn, meant both fullbacks were at times exposed. The first City goal came from the left, the second from the right, and the third was converted by the left-winger from a cross from the right.
Where the diamond worked for Spurs, though, was in giving it three men playing relatively centrally high up the pitch. The pressure that exerted, allied to an indifferent start from Ilkay Gundogan, who was deputizing for Fernandinho, and some unexpected clumsiness from Aymeric Laporte brought the two chances for Son that yielded Tottenham’s two first-half goals.
But the longer the game went on, the more City took control, in part perhaps because the loss of Moussa Sissoko to injury. The lack of signings has left it short of cover, and the only option for Mauricio Pochettino was to bring on Llorente. The original plan was abandoned and all Spurs could do was cling on. Somehow, implausibly and irrationally, they did, but the victory is none the less glorious for being inexplicable.
Guardiola thwarted again, with an assist to VAR
Pep Guardiola must wonder if he will ever reach another Champions League final. He hasn’t been in one since 2011, but in the litany of near misses, none perhaps quite ranks like this. City was brilliant. It dominated long sections of the game. It had chance after chance. Hugo Lloris made one extraordinary second-half save. But City shot itself in the foot again and again, from Sergio Aguero’s missed penalty in the first leg to the two chances it presented Son in the opening 10 minutes. And in the end, it came down to two VAR calls.
First there was Llorente’s winner. He was only on the pitch because of the injury to Sissoko, a change that forced the awkward shift of shape. But in the end, that, like almost everything else in this tie, worked to Tottenham’s favor. Did the ball brush Llorente’s arm before bouncing in off his hip? And if it did, did that constitute a handball? Eventually referee Cuneyt Cakir shrugged. He couldn’t tell, and so the goal stood.
And then there was what had appeared to be a winner scored by Sterling three minutes into injury time. As the Etihad throbbed in celebration the awareness that it was being reviewed dawned. Aguero, the replay showed, was just offside in the build-up and Guardiola, yet again, had been denied a third final–and with that, the shot at the unprecedented quadruple.
Man City has little time to recover. Tottenham returns to the Etihad on Saturday, and another setback could cost City its chance at another Premier League title, too.
Mane's goal rush continues
A couple of weeks ago, irritated by continued questioning about a mini goal-drought, Salah irritably pointed out that opponents were focusing on him, which opened up opportunities for the other members of the forward line. All three were on target here, but it is Mane who has been the main beneficiary this season.
There was a time last year when he was regarded as being a little wild, somebody whose main attribute was the pace that terrified opposing defenses. This season, though, Mane has been ruthless: this was his 14th goal in the last 18 games. Salah, meanwhile, has scored three in his last four. Opponents perhaps are realizing they cannot just focus on the Egyptian anymore.