By Andrew Warshaw
April 18 – For the second night running, the Champions League threw up the most extraordinary of stories as underdogs Tottenham Hotspur, without their injured talisman Harry Kane, went through to the semi-finals in remarkable circumstances against the might of big-spending Manchester City after one of the most stirring, nerve-wracking ties in the history of club football.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team, hit badly by injury and who were just 12 minutes away from being eliminated in the group phase, took the tie on the away goals rule despite losing the quarterfinal second leg 4-3, courtesy of two decisive VAR decisions – the first allowing an all-important Fernando Llorente goal that swung the tie back towards the visitors, the second ruling out what would have been a semifinal-clinching stoppage time strike by City’s Raheem Sterling.
Tottenham, who had not reached the last four since the original European Cup in 1962 and whose last European semi-final was the 1984 UEFA Cup, will play Ajax Amsterdam who themselves pulled off a massive upset the previous night against Juventus.
Barcelona will play Liverpool in the other semi for a place in the final in Madrid.
Tottenham’s aggregate victory after their 1-0 home leg success ended Pep Guardiola’s quest for a historic unprecedented quadruple of Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup.
Five goals in a breathtaking opening 21 minutes saw City lead 3-2 needing one more goal to move ahead over two legs. Sergio Aguero duly obliged before Llorente, on as a first-half substitute for the injured Moussa Sissoko, claimed Spurs’ third off his hip and, marginally, his elbow which was upheld after VAR by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir.
In one final heartstopping twist deep into five minutes of stoppage time, City’s packed stadium celebrated what they thought was a last-gasp tie-clinching hat-trick goal by Sterling. Pochettino threw his coat to the ground and kicked a water bottle in frustration but emotions quickly changed as VAR spotted offside in the build-up to the goal.
It was a second successive quarter-final exit for City, arguably the most exciting team in European football along with Barca, following last year’s defeat at the hands of Liverpool.
Guardiola may be hailed as the best coach in the world but since lifting the Champions League with Barca in 2010-11, in eight seasons since he’s not made it to the final.
“It is cruel but it is what it is and we have to accept it,” said Guardiola, who has spent £525 million since arriving at City. “I am so proud of the players and the fans. I have never heard noise like that since I have been in Manchester but football is unpredictable.”
After his patched-up team’s unexpected success, Pochettino could not contain his emotions. “I am so happy, so proud. My players are heroes to be here. Sport always gives you the possibility to beat teams that no one thinks we are capable of beating. Football is not only about talent but also belief. This team has the personality and mentality to believe all is possible.”
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