Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola insisted that the video assistant referee (VAR) does produce “fair football,” despite a cruel UEFA Champions League quarter-final exit on away goals to Tottenham Hotspur after a pulsating tie on Wednesday ended 4-4 on aggregate.
City were 4-3 victors in the second leg, but for the third straight season failed to reach the last four under Guardiola as two big VAR reviews went in Spurs’ favor.
First, Fernando Llorente’s decisive goal 17 minutes from time stood, despite the ball appearing to clip the Spaniard’s hand on its way into the net.
Then deep into stoppage-time, Raheem Sterling had the strike that would have sealed his hat-trick and seen City through ruled out after Sergio Aguero was shown to be offside in the buildup.
Elimination ended City’s quest for a quadruple and Guardiola lamented a series of costly errors across both games, after Aguero also missed a penalty in the first leg, which saw his side bow out to a side 16 points behind them in the Premier League.
“It’s tough. We were close to go through, it’s cruel, but we have to accept it,” Guardiola said. “The mistakes in this competition punish you a lot. Unfortunately, it was a bad end for us.”
Unlike Guardiola, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino has previously been a critic of VAR, but believes the decisions to award City a penalty in the first leg and not punish Fernandinho for a clash with Harry Kane balanced themselves out over the tie.
“You have to trust the VAR when it is against or for you,” Pochettino said. “The decision to include VAR in football is going to change the game.”
He labeled his players as “heroes” for reaching the semi-finals for just the second time in their history after a season in which they have not signed a single player and played the majority of the campaign at a temporary home in Wembley.
“On this type of night, this type of victory, only I can feel proud. I feel they are heroes. With all the circumstances to be in the semi-finals of the Champions League, they deserve a lot of praise,” Pochettino said.
Guardiola’s decision to not start Kevin de Bruyne in the first leg will be further questioned, as the Belgian bagged a hat-trick of assists to take City to the brink of the last four.
The first set up the first of four goals in 11 minutes as Sterling opened the scoring.
However, Spurs struck back twice in three minutes as Son Heung-min’s double took his tally for the season to 20.
A kamikaze opening had another twist as Bernardo Silva’s effort deflected off Danny Rose and wrong-footed Hugo Lloris at his near post to bring City level on the night.
By the midway point of the first half, the hosts were back in front as Bernardo and De Bruyne played creators once more and Sterling finished off a low cross at the back post.
Spurs’ hopes of holding on to their advantage on away goals suffered another blow when Moussa Sissoko was forced off with an injury.
Pochettino chose attack as the best form of defense by replacing the midfielder with Llorente in what proved to be a decisive change.
De Bruyne had his third assist on the hour mark as he surged through midfield before timing his pass to Aguero to perfection and the Argentine rifled past Lloris.
Having gone ahead for the first time in the tie, Guardiola soon sent on Fernandinho to restore some sense of control, but City were pegged back again as the incredible tie swung back in Tottenham’s favor.
Kieran Trippier’s corner was bundled in by Llorente, but there was controversy as the ball seemed to hit the striker’s arm on its way in.
However, after a VAR check, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir stood by his original decision and the goal stood.
VAR went against City again deep into stoppage-time as delirium soon turned to disbelief inside the Etihad when what would have been a hat-trick for Sterling was ruled out.
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