Even Instant Replay Couldn’t Ruin the Most Exciting Soccer Match of the Year

Fernando Llorente celebrates a goal
Fernando Llorente celebrates at the final whistle during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg football match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.
Anthony Devlin/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal between Manchester City and Tottenham was about as cinematic a match as you could imagine, as far removed from a standard mid-table slogfest as the fights in the Rocky movies are from actual boxing. The pace was frantic from start to finish. Both teams seemed eager to walk face-first into the other side’s haymakers. There were five goals in the first 21 minutes. Every attack was loaded with the potential for devastation—none more so than Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling’s clever feint and finish in the game’s 93rd minute, which seemed to push City through to the semifinals on aggregate scoring in their two-match series.

But it was City that ended up devastated. Sterling’s goal was reviewed via Video Assistant Referee, and suddenly the game hinged on finding the right replay angle. After a couple minutes, the goal was called back for an offside violation, leaving the series tied 4–4 and sending Tottenham to the semifinals because it had scored more away goals. (Tottenham won last week at home 1–0 and lost 4–3 Wednesday in Manchester to secure the tiebreaker.)

What made the replay call confusing to the average viewer was that Sterling clearly wasn’t offside when he received the pass from Sergio Agüero—he was behind the ball and several Tottenham defenders. (He still scored easily anyway because defense was optional in this game.) Instead, the key question was whether Agüero had been offside when he ran onto a bouncing ball just inside of Tottenham’s box. It also looked like an odd issue to raise: The pass Agüero was trying to recover was played by Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, and a player can’t be offside when the ball is played by an opponent. But the referee determined that Agüero was past the last man when Eriksen’s pass clipped City’s Bernardo Silva. A player is offside if the ball comes off his teammate, so the goal that resulted from the move didn’t count.

There is no way to make that long story short, no telling of it that doesn’t involve incepting yourself multiple layers down into the most misunderstood rule in sports. There are few things more tedious in modern sports than complaining about instant replay, but it made Wednesday’s game devolve into a deep dive into the minutiae of the Laws of the Game, like a sports movie directed by prequel-era George Lucas. VAR got it right on Sterling’s final goal, as City manager Pep Guardiola admitted, but it made the end of a stellar game feel anticlimactic.

If any game deserved better, it was this one. It was electric, as thrilling and as attacking as the soccer world has seen all season. The score was 3-2 after 21 minutes, four of those goals coming in a single seven-minute blitz. Sterling already had scored twice before his winner was ruled out. City’s Kevin De Bruyne finished with three assists, passing through the opposing midfield seemingly at will. Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min put away his third and fourth goals of the knockout rounds, robbing City of their momentum after Sterling’s opener just four minutes in. The offenses were consistently brilliant and the defenses consistently inept, the perfect recipe for excitement.

A 4–3 thriller is the perfect encapsulation of this year’s Champions League, where no tie in the knockout rounds has finished with fewer than four total goals and all four remaining semifinalists tilt heavily toward attack. Liverpool presses aggressively and counters swiftly through its dynamic front three. Ajax has found the right crafty veterans to get the best out of its exciting young talent and has scored more than 100 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie. Barcelona still has Lionel Messi and has scored 25 more goals than the second-place team in La Liga. Every team remaining has scored four goals or more in a single Champions League knockout match this season except Tottenham, which has scored three twice.

As for City, it plays Tottenham again this Saturday in the Premier League, desperate for a win to keep pace with Liverpool at the top of the table. How Wednesday’s stunning replay reversal impacts the game is tough to say. One piece of advice, though: Bet the over.