Manchester City and Tottenham played what will probably be considered an all-time Champions League classic on Wednesday night. While City won the match 4-3, Spurs’ three away goals combined with their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last week was just enough — barely — to see them to the first Champions League semifinals in their history. They will play Ajax, who dispatched Juventus on Tuesday.
I’ve been a Tottenham Hotspur fan since 2007 and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the mixture of bone-crushing dread and absolute jubilation that I felt watching that match — not, perhaps, since Spurs beat City back in 2010 to clinch their first ever top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. Wednesday’s match was insane, easily the best match of the Champions League thus far, and somehow Spurs managed to not step on a rake in the process.
There are many, many talking points from this match that we could talk about. Here are five things we learned from this wild result at the Etihad Stadium.
THAT WAS ABSOLUTELY BONKERS!
Back in 2014, SB Nation’s Jon Bois made what is probably my favorite tweet ever. At the time, I thought it was very funny, and I’ve referenced it a number of times over the years, but I’m not sure I fully understood it until Wednesday’s match.
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
Four goals in 11 minutes? A brace from Son Heung-Min within two minutes? A goal from Fernando Llorente that went off his hip and quite possibly his arm? A City goal two minutes from time that would’ve sent them through that was then (correctly) called back by VAR for offside? A 4-3 loss that is still, improbably, a win for Spurs?
After the first half, I attempted my own Boisian tweet to try and explain just how absolutely crazy-go-nuts this match was. I’m not sure I fully captured it.
You, an American baseball bro: Soccer is soooooo boring!— Dustin Menno (@dustingm) April 17, 2019
Me, drinking ketamine out of a coffee cup: [gestures wildly at this match]
There are no words in the English language for what I’m feeling right now. “Happy” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Spurs are running out of players.
When Moussa Sissoko went down with what looked like a groin injury late in the first half, it looked frightfully bad for Spurs. The only senior midfielder they had on the bench was 18-year old Oliver Skipp. Eric Dier and Harry Winks are both injured and didn’t make the trip, and central midfield has been a problem for almost the entire season.
In a surprising move, Mauricio Pochettino replaced Sissoko with Fernando Llorente, dropping Dele Alli deeper into central midfield. It... didn’t really work, as City dominated the early part of the second half, though Llorente more than rewarded Poch’s faith in him by scoring a series-winning goal late in the second half.
However, there’s no denying that Spurs are seriously banged up and at what could be the worst possible time. With Erik Lamela re-injuring himself in the pre-match warmups, Spurs are now without six first team players — Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Harry Winks, Serge Aurier, and now Lamela and Sissoko. Spurs still need to pick up 9 points from their last five league matches, and also have a Champions League semifinal series against Ajax coming up. This is a team held together with string at the moment; they’ll need players to get healthy quick, or dig deep into their bench for some important upcoming matches.
Hugo Lloris was immense.
It might seem odd to say this about a keeper that shipped four goals in a Champions League loss, but Hugo Lloris came through with some absolutely clutch saves in this match. Yes, there were a couple of scary moments — the save he spilled that was bundled out by Danny Rose in particular — and he might have done better on Aguero’s goal at the near post, but he had a number of fantastic diving stops and parries that kept Spurs from getting blown out.
City are an absolutely amazing offensive team. Raheem Sterling scored two fantastic goals, and Bernardo Silva’s strike took a weird deflection off of Dany Rose and past Hugo. But if not for Hugo’s heroics late, Spurs might have been blown out of the Etihad. As it was, it was a classic, and Spurs’ club captain was a big reason why.
VAR is good again.
There’s no question that VAR has its share of detractors, but it got everything right on Wednesday night. First, it (correctly) let stand Fernando Llorente’s late goal that put Spurs back ahead on away goals — the replay during the telecast, which is what the official used for review, seemed to strongly indicate that the ball didn’t hit Llorente’s arm on the way in. Another replay after the match showed that it did in fact hit Llorente’s forearm before bundling off his hip and past the keeper, but if the match official had access to that angle it’s unlikely it would’ve been considered “intentional” enough to overturn the call.
Then Sterling’s third goal was again rightfully called back after Sergio Aguero was offside in the initial move. The call was tight... but also the correct one, and it was enough to send Spurs through. City fans may feel aggrieved, but if this is what VAR is for, then it’s being used correctly.
The road isn’t getting any easier.
Spurs’ next match is this Saturday, again against Manchester City at the Etihad, though this time in the Premier League. The dynamics of this match will be fascinating — Spurs are super injured, and City will be out to prove something, though there’s also an argument that this might be the kind of defeat that could derail their title campaign.
And the matches come thick and fast after that, including a two match series against “team of destiny” Ajax for the right to travel to the Wanda for the Champions League final. This is an Ajax side that has knocked both Real Madrid and Juventus out of the competition. They’re seriously good, and Spurs will need to play the first leg of that series without Son Heung-Min, who picked up a third yellow against City and will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.
But at this point, even if Spurs get blown out by City on Saturday, would anyone doubt this team can finish top four and even win the Champions League? FiveThirtyEight has Spurs with a coin-flip chance of making the Champions League final, and a 15% chance of winning the whole thing. Considering the way their group stage campaign started, that’s astounding. They’ve made it this far with serious midfield issues and a dinged-up squad. There’s no reason to think they can’t continue to defy expectations.