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Football unwraps another gift at the Etihad

At this stage of the season one could be forgiven for being a little football-weary. But there are still games that are a gift for spectators. Wednesday’s encounter between Manchester City and Tottenham was a throwback to the old days. In the first 15 minutes every attack resulted in a goal, no one looked at their mobile phones, it was impossible to keep the match report updated. Someone asked: “What’s the score?” Four goals scored in 11 minutes and three more would follow. A miraculous Tottenham would eventually emerge victorious with the assistance of VAR after it ruled out the Raheem Sterling goal that would have made him one of the greatest heroes in City history. He still will be, but not on this great night; that belongs to football. And to Mauricio Pochettino. 

If anyone had been unsure of precisely what is being 'cooked up' in this Premier League then yesterday's offering would dispel any doubts. This was haute cuisine. There was, quite rightly, talk of mistakes, but the speed of decision making, the tactical quality and technique of both sides, the desire of both teams to be the main protaganists was there for all to see at the Etihad. No one tried to hoodwink the referee, nobody hid, and not a bead of sweat was left undripped. When Ederson whacked a ball in the direction of the technical areas, Pep Guardiola attempted to head it and Pochettino went to block it. Even the coaches didn’t want to cede a disputed ball on the sidelines, now that it doesn’t belong to them. 

The errors were calamitous. When Sterling opened the scoring with a fine right-footed shot, the Spurs defence was slow to move across. When Tottenham struck back, Aymeric Laporte was at fault first with a bad touch and then a loose pass. How many was that? Son Heung-min had already scored twice. Of course there was a tactical element. City’s first two passes were diagonal balls played by the central defenders to the wingers to skirt the midfield bottleneck that Spurs has deployed in the opening leg. At least four attacking City players were constantly lurking on the edge of the visitors’ area. A cross from Kevin de Bruyne that evaded everyone before reaching Sterling made it 3-2 and we had a different game. By now Sterling had already helped himself to a brace. 

Pochettino's slow burn scorches City

In the second half, City took up residence on the edge of the opponent's area backed by a crowd that was noisier than it had ever been before. It seemed that Spurs had given it their all and that the game was in City’s hands. Then Kun Agüero made it 4-2, his guided missile of a shot flying past Lloris at his near post. More was to follow. Fernando Llorente’s goal came following a corner and was delayed by the intervention of VAR that decreed no handball and then just as the game was coming to an end, another error, this time by Christian Eriksen, and with no time for Tottenham to react, Sterling buried what would have been the decisive strike. 

The stadium, the visiting fans’ section apart, was now bouncing. Flying even. The building seemed to be taking off. And then.....an offside that only VAR had correctly spotted ruled the goal out leaving Pochettino and his assistants Jesús Pérez, Miguel d’Agostino y Toni Jiménez to gleefully embrace, because their decision to try something new in a different country and their insistence on daring to dream, had carried them into the semi-finals of the Champions League.

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