Raheem Sterling had scored an incredible hat-trick, Manchester City had got out of jail and Pep Guardiola could breathe again in the Champions League.
But wait. VAR review. The technology Guardiola has relentlessly championed intervened to deny him a shot at immortality and history. A triumph for the ages chalked off by modernity and progress.
Mauricio Pochettino, by contrast, is a consistent critic of video-enhanced decisions. Moments later he let out a guttural roar as his Tottenham warriors tore off in ecstasy having tasted agony. A 4-3 defeat played out as the sweetest victory.
It was the kind of night to play unruly havoc with the senses and make a mockery of meticulous planning. Therein lay City’s downfall, one Guardiola unwittingly laid the foundations for a week ago.
FULL-TIME | We gave it everything.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 17, 2019
“Pep is so, so stressed – all the time,” Kevin De Bruyne said in a piece for The Players’ Tribune this week. One can only imagine the Kilimanjaro heights of Guardiola’s stress levels midway through an absurd, brilliant and berserk first half between City and Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.
A two-time Champions League winner at Barcelona, the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition have come to torment the continent’s leading coach of the past decade.
Versus Real Madrid and Barcelona with Bayern Munich, quick flurries of goals left Guardiola’s teams incapacitated and unable to recover. At City, faced with Monaco and Liverpool in the past two seasons, he has suffered the same fate.
Against this backdrop, he opted for calculated caution during last week’s first leg in north London. Despite Son Heung-min scoring the only goal and amid accusations of over-thinking to his team’s detriment, Guardiola the perfectionist had the control he craved and, so he claimed, the tie where he wanted it.
The first three minutes of an opening 11 that will be spoken of for decades were actually quite uneventful. Honestly, check the video. You’ll watch it back enough.
On cue De Bruyne glided majestically in from the right touchline on halfway, exchanged passes with Sergio Aguero and found Sterling to dispatch one of those exquisite finishes he has come to make look routine.
3 – Kevin De Bruyne is the first player to deliver at least 3 assists in a CL quarter final since Ryan Giggs with Manchester United v Roma in 2007 (4). Prince . pic.twitter.com/m8DaQZVQqA
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) April 17, 2019
City’s masterful playmaker had broken the game open, with the added bonus of probably making his manager a little less stressed. In reality, he had released a monster.
Indeed, the only thing this game had in common with its predecessor was Son scoring. Then he did again, both times aided by mistakes from the usually immaculate Aymeric Laporte.
Lucas Moura was jack-in-the-boxing to win headers against bigger men, with the plaster-casted Dele Alli a similar nuisance as the City defence was torn asunder. You imagine the stricken Harry Kane would have enjoyed himself.
Bernardo Silva was an author of some of Guardiola’s Champions League pain in the red and white of Monaco two years ago and he was on hand to scramble a deflected equaliser before combining sublimely with De Bruyne for Sterling’s second.
There had been 22 minutes, with many in attendance in need of some of that ice the England forward seemed to have running through his veins.
The relatively settled period that followed took place in a fog of disorientation for most, although De Bruyne retained enviable clarity.
Seeing every angle, he spotted one for a shot that Hugo Lloris somehow kept out after the restart
One of Tottenham’s first-leg heroes for keeping out Aguero’s penalty, Lloris had no chance when De Bruyne picked out the Argentinian in the 59th minute.
The strike came from virtually the same blade of grass as Aguero’s final-day heroics seven years go. Watch it, drink it in. You will never see anything like this ever again.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) April 17, 2019
On came Fernandinho in an attempt to bolt down the nonsense and there was the control Guardiola craved, within touching distance. But there was Fernando Llorente, bundling past the best efforts of City’s defence to ensure it slipped agonisingly through his fingers.
Like Sterling – who, once this anguish subsides should reflect upon another display that places him among the very best in the game – Llorente’s goal was subjected to a VAR review. The first quelled a braying stadium and the second stopped bedlam in its tracks.
A quadruple bid is now downsized to a tilt at a similarly unprecedented domestic treble. Although their exertions in vain here could take a significant toll, City are still in command of their own destiny in that regard.
It is hard to claim the same for Guardiola in the Champions League, after a wonderfully wild night in the competition he adores but can no longer tame.
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