Mauricio Pochettino saluted his Tottenham “heroes” after they plotted an improbable path to the semi-finals of the Champions League at Manchester City’s expense.
Spurs lost 4-3 at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday amid an incredible evening of VAR-fuelled drama, as Fernando Llorente’s bundled 73rd-minute goal ensured a 4-4 aggregate scoreline and progress to face Ajax in the final four on the away goals rule.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir studied pitch-side replays of Llorente’s goal but decided against the case for handball, before a final astonishing twist.
Raheem Sterling thought he had completed a match-winning hat-trick to spark bedlam in the Etihad Stadium stands, but then Cakir got the message that a marginal offside call should fall against Sergio Aguero, who laid on the chance for the England star.
“I’m so happy. On this type of night, for this type of victory in the most important competition in the world,” Pochettino said at a post-match news conference, before saluting a side without injured England trio Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Harry Winks, and shorn of the influential Moussa Sissoko through a groin injury before half-time.
“I can only feel proud about the effort of everyone. They are heroes. After what happened this season, all the circumstance, to be in the semi-finals of the Champions League, they deserve a lot of praise.
“They deserve everything, to live everything. One way you can describe this team is it is not about players and names. Always we keep the same spirit, ideas and philosophy.”
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) April 17, 2019
Pochettino has been an outspoken critic of VAR and remained a pragmatic sceptic afterwards – pointing out that the first-leg penalty awarded against Danny Rose was a moment where technology did Tottenham no favours.
“You need to trust VAR, when it is against or when it is for you,” he said.
“I told you before, the decision to include VAR in football is going to change the game a little bit.
“I am pro, on the basis of trying to help the referees but last year I was a little bit worried and today my feeling is the same.
“When it is for you, you have to accept; when it is against you, you have to accept – like when it was a penalty in the first leg.”
After a scarcely believable opening 22 minutes, which ended with City 3-2 ahead on the night after both teams had led inside the first 10, Pochettino anticipates another thrilling spectacle against Erik ten Hag’s swashbuckling Ajax side in a semi-final that is just two weeks away.
“Football is unpredictable and I think the way Ajax play it is going to be an open game, a very offensive and exciting game,” he added, in the knowledge that Son Heung-min – scorer of three goals in the quarter-final tie – will miss the opening leg through suspension.
“It is going to be a fantastic two legs. I am going to enjoy the game like I enjoyed it tonight.”
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