Monday 16 September 2019

Dominant City are denied at death as VAR strikes again

Manchester City 2-2 Tottenham

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero scores their second goal against Spurs yesterday. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero scores their second goal against Spurs yesterday. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Sam Wallace

Together on the touchline in the final moments of the game, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino stood in discussion: the surreal end to another surreal game in which the video assistant referee had rewritten history and all hell had broken loose.

For the second week in a row VAR changed the story again, denying Gabriel Jesus a winner in time added on at the end of a remarkable game when the referee in the studio in west London spotted a ball brush the hand of Aymeric Laporte in the build-up. Once again the Etihad had erupted, as it did at Raheem Sterling's late goal in the Champions League in April, and once again when they had picked up hats and glasses and all the stuff that had gone flying, they saw that the VAR review was in progress.

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Manchester City's Kyle Walker in action against Tottenham Hotspur's Davinson Sanchez. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
Manchester City's Kyle Walker in action against Tottenham Hotspur's Davinson Sanchez. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

It might make for a great television twist, but VAR in action, in the stadium, does not feel like football at all. An unseen hand picking through the chaos and the excitement looking for details that feel immaterial when you are there. The spell is broken in that moment, and the conference between Pochettino and Guardiola in the dying minutes felt like the conversation of two men who had given up trying to make sense of it all and were just consoling one another.

How City did not win the game will remain a mystery. They dominated it from start to finish and had 30 attempts on Tottenham's goal compared to three from the visitors that yielded two goals. Not only that but also a touchline argument between Guardiola and Sergio Aguero, scorer of the second goal, which was only ended with the intervention of the assistant Mikel Arteta - although there was no doubting the momentary anger in the City manager.

The two of them shared an embrace in the moments when it looked like Aguero's replacement Gabriel Jesus had scored the winning goal in injury-time and all was forgiven. Then everyone was watching referee Michael Oliver draw televisions in the air and the scoreline on the big screens flicked back to 2-2.

Hard to say that Spurs deserved it but they took their chances.

Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne gestures. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne gestures. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Lucas Moura was transformative as a second-half replacement, scoring with his first touch. Apart from that they held off City as best they could with Erik Lamela getting a first-half equaliser after Raheem Sterling had scored the opener.

It was overwhelming at times for Spurs in the first-half, and although they scored with their single attempt on the City goal it was, for periods, just an effort not to be overrun. They tried to stick to the plan and keep the ball when they could - not many teams will be able to do that against City - but the pressure was ferocious at times.

Everything that an opponent attempts against City must be done with the utmost urgency, or at least it feels that way. There is never a moment to consider the options or any margin of error permitted when it comes to passing the ball.

The midfield shape of Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne slightly ahead of Rodrigo felt unbreakable in the first-half. De Bruyne was the game's dominant creative force and he was consumed by the usual determination to get things done.

Down the right side of city's attack De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva are a formidable force, switching possession and then finding space. Both first-half City goals came from that area, created by De Bruyne' right boot.

The first was a cross struck first time to the back post, where he had spotted the run of Sterling. The fourth goal in two games for the Englishman was steered perfectly past Hugo Lloris.

It was a difficult header and the space where he might put the ball rapidly closing but he took it well.

The second, 15 minutes later, came from the same position, a cross struck by De Bruyne at just the right moment, with just the right pace on it to meet the run of Aguero between the two Spurs centre-backs. Again, the finish with the Argentine opening his right boot to guide the ball behind and away into the far corner was perfect and it had to be. Spurs are, after all, a good side - they just were not being allowed to demonstrate that.

Their goal had certainly exposed an inadequacy in City, the only one thus far in the game. Lamela was permitted to travel some distance with the ball and beat Ederson with a left-foot shot.

City had dominated the first-half and there was a third chance created again by De Bruyne that Gundogan connected with imperfectly and sent wide. They could not quite create the opening for a third goal and Guardiola seemed to sense what was coming.

The equaliser was astonishing: the first touch for Moura within a minute of him coming on, a header from a corner in which he outjumped Kyle Walker. It was Spurs' second attempt on goal. Guardiola had begun lambasting Aguero even before then but the argument was going to escalate in the minutes that followed. Aguero was summoned to come off after 65 minutes, a glower as he reluctantly broke into a jog and then came the clash with Guardiola. It felt like the City manager had initiated it, his hand on the striker's chest. Aguero responded and Arteta had no choice but to step between the pair of them. Guardiola went to pursue Aguero up into the seats before Arteta intervened.

Aguero and Guardiola were making their peace as the VAR review came through for the Jesus goal. It may turn out to be one of the decisions that change the season, so fine are the margins these days.

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