If last Tuesday was breathless and emotional, last night was a turbo charged version of the same. It was the first leg on steroids, boosted up to the max, the Xtreme edition turned up to eleven.
That we prevailed, that we made this moneyed team of all talents managed by one of the best sit back and take stock, look at themselves and wonder what happened, is an achievement that feels at the moment as though it cannot be overestimated.
Guardiola seemed to treat last week’s game as a distraction from the job of keeping City’s nose in front in the Premier League. His selection was cautious and poor, his substitutions ridiculous, his attitude complacent. Whatever damage is done in London can be fixed in Manchester – or so he thought.
The team he picked yesterday, whilst it didn’t throw caution completely to the wind, was far more attack-minded. City’s width caused us problems from the start. That’s underselling it. Walker and Mendy doubled up on Trippier and Rose with Sterling and Bernardo Silva and we were all over the place. Our full-backs were outnumbered and the home team took full advantage.
Luckily for us, Laporte and Kompany were equally at odds with themselves and in that crazy opening twenty minutes we were able to go toe-to-toe. Led by a back in form De Bruyne City broke continuously through our makeshift midfield of Sissoko and Wanyama and gave the impression that they could score at will – at the other end though, Sonny actually did score at will. Neither side was able to exert any semblance of control over the game, at 2-1 up we were in the driving seat, just a few minutes later, at 3-2 down we were hanging on to the rear bumper by our fingertips.
The loss of Sissoko to a groin strain (?) just before the break seemed the final nail in the coffin. These two games have cost us Kane, Winks, Sissoko and damaged Dele – that’s quite an attrition rate.
In a move that puzzled more than gave hope, rather than reinforce the rear line, Poch appeared to weaken it andthe attack by bringing on Llorente and pushing Dele and Son deeper. There were other more ‘sensible’ options. Skipp as a like for like replacement, Sanchez on and a move to a back three, Sanchez on and Vertonghen to left back, but that’s why Poch is in charge. He knows about these things.
City’s non-stop pressure post half-time reaped its reward when Aguero thunder bolted a drive past Hugo at his near post. With his team in the lead for the first time in the tie but still with half an hour to go, Pep decided that this was the time for restraint and Fernandinho was brought on for some diving and thuggery.
So that was it. The home team dominated possession and it appeared just a matter of time before another of de Bruyne’s injections of pace would complete our miserable evening.
Against the run of play though we moved upfield and after a couple of Eriksen efforts had forced Ederson in to action, Son was slipped in on the right and forced a corner off the goalkeeper. Rose swung it in and we were awarded another corner on the other side after the keeper flapped at the cross. This time Trippier did the honours and after Toby’s thin flick-on, the ball ricocheted in to the net off Llorente’s thigh. Cue mayhem, then VAR anxiety, then ecstasy once more. Scenes on the terraces. Limbs everywhere.
For the remaining 17 minutes of the match, the pub I was in was bedlam. People on stools and tables were matched by those with head in hands, unable to look but unwilling to look away. Davies came on for Lucas – what we have we hold was Poch’s message. Belief was pumping through the players veins, Wanyama, who had started terribly was now everywhere, chasing and blocking and flicking the ball away from the marauding sky-blue hordes. He intercepted at one point, made his way forward to the half way line and with no-one ahead of him, curled the ball down field and out of play in the manner of a fly-half gaining territory. To much anguish & disbelief, the fourth official signalled 5 minutes of injury time.
But then it all fell apart. Eriksen misplaced his pass under pressure, Bernardo Silva’s flick fell to Aguero who fed Sterling who completed his hat-trick. He ran to the corner and was mobbed by his colleagues. Pep went mad on the touch line. All that hard work had gone to waste. All that courage, fight and endeavour, only to fall at the last.
VAR time. Offside. Aguero was unarguably offside when he received the ball. The time taken for previous VAR decisions had been interminable, this one was decisive. No goal.
Mayhem once more. The cruelty of the decision was lost on no-one, it didn’t affect the celebrations of the Spurs fans in the stadium or in the pub. More bedlam.
Screaming at the referee as he let the clock tick on for nearly two minutes past the allotted 5 felt unseemly but compulsory. Celebrating with strangers as the final whistle blew also.
A loss on the night but of course, thanks to Son’s goal at the new WHL, victory over all.
What a night. What a team.
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