Seconds away from Champions League elimination, Manchester City pulled of one football’s greatest escapes.
It happened. A stunning 93rd minute goal, the Etihad Stadium exploding, match winner Raheem Sterling wheeling away in delirious celebrations.
City 5, Tottenham 3. Glory for Pep Guardiola’s men, who progress to the Champions Legaue semi-final.
It happened, and we saw it happen.
Except, we were quickly told, it didn’t. Manchester City’s greatest ever Champions League moment has now been scrubbed from history. City 4, Tottenham 3, and the visitors through on the away goals rule.
It had been a mirage.
Welcome to the age of Video Assistant Referee, VAR.
7', 10' Son
11' B. Silva
VAR: Goal stands
VAR: No goal
Tottenham win on away goals
Instant Champions League classic (via @brfootball) pic.twitter.com/4iGrIOpYrq— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 18, 2019
The hugely divisive system has been in operation for a couple of seasons now, and even helped decide the 2018 World Cup final, no less. But this was a level of chaos no one had been prepared for.
Future generations will look back at Wednesday’s absurd quarter-final tie as the day VAR changed football forever. Twice VAR came into play; for Tottenham’s disputed third goal, and Sterling’s final act. Twice the decisions, correctly it must be stressed, favoured Tottenham.
This one definitely felt wrong and unfair to City but the thing is nobody is used to VAR yet and Aguero was marginally offside. Off side is off side there's no arguing that and VAR did it's job and disallowed the goal. I think over time ppl will get used to it taking away goals— Tseels (@SeelTeam6) April 18, 2019
But that doesn’t really tell the full story.
Those who see VAR as the antithesis of everything spontaneous about football finally have their smoking gun. This was as clear a demonstration of how VAR has ruined football as you’re ever likely to see.
But, countered VAR’s champions, justice had been served.
There is no easy answer to this VAR conundrum. The system gets far more decisions right than it does wrong, but at price. Are players not supposed to celebrate last-minute winner for fear the goal might be ultimately disallowed? And, is VAR, as its opponents claim, taking the excitement out of football?To which the counterintuitive answer, at least at the Etihad, is a clear no. In fact, that agonising wait for the final decision was, unintentionally of course, one of the most tense, dramatic moments in recent Champions League history.
But what of poor Manchester City? Their visceral reaction to Sterling’s phantom winner had been shaped by over a century and half of football tradition. Few moments in football come close to a last minute winner. Instead, that finale will forever be remembered for Guardiola’s devastated reaction.
And so it comes down to a question of tradition and spirit of the game against technology and justice. For now, players, managers and fans and will remain divided on this, most likely depending on whether VAR has gone for or against your team. In time, perhaps we’ll to accept VAR in the same way we now accept the offside or back pass rules.
But not just yet. And not, probably, for a long time. Just ask Guardiola.