Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, right, and Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, left, react after being defeated in the Champions League quarterfinal, second leg, soccer match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (AP)
There’s something about the Champions League that just keeps on delivering spellbinding soccer games.
This edition of the tournament alone has been a trove of breathtaking matches. In the group stage, we got FC Barcelona’s 4-2 shootout win over Tottenham Hotspur; Liverpool’s last-gasp 3-2 win over Paris Saint-Germain; Ajax’s 3-3 tie with Bayern Munich with four goals in the 82nd minute or later; and Manchester United’s thrilling 2-1 injury-time, own-goal win over Juventus.
Then, the knockout stage. Juve’s 3-0 comeback against Atletico Madrid, after losing the first leg 2-0. Ajax’s 4-1 victory against Real Madrid, after a first leg loss. United overturning a 2-0 deficit to Paris Saint-Germain with a 3-1 away victory, capped by a 94th-minute winner. And then, of course, Ajax’s 2-1 upset of Juve in Turin on Tuesday.
But, improbably, the craziest game of the season hadn’t even happened yet.
That came on Wednesday, when Manchester City and Spurs exchanged four goals in the opening 11 minutes, setting a new Champions League record. City would get a third in the 21st minute and a fourth in the 59th, only for Spurs to come back in the 73rd to make it 4-3 and take the aggregate lead on away goals, courtesy of the 1-0 home victory in the first leg.
But that wasn’t the end of this heart-stopping game. In the 93rd minute, Raheem Sterling appeared to have bagged the winner, only for the Video Assistant Referee to overturn it for offside and conserve the Spurs’ victory.
Somehow, this tournament just keeps on delivering drama. It’s been happening consistently for years, some of the games growing legendary. Like Liverpool’s comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 final, after going 3-0 behind. Or Barca overturning a 4-0 first-leg deficit to PSG with a 6-1 home win deep in injury time in 2017. Or even United’s very late equalizer and winner against Bayern in the 1998 final.
It’s hard to say what produces all these soccer histrionics. Maybe it’s that the bulk of the teams in the tournament are philosophically and physically wired to attack, and don’t really know how else to play, courtesy of their domestic dominance. Maybe it’s the ever-growing financial stakes of the Champions League, tempting teams into throwing caution to the wind and going all-out in every game. Maybe it’s some kind of dearth of world-class defenders, coinciding with a golden age of attackers.
At any rate, City and Spurs played an almost unimaginably exciting game.
Just four minutes in, Sterling, set up by Kevin De Bruyne, scored with a now-trademarked curler.
Then Heung-min Son had a ball blocked right into his path, sweeping his shot under Ederson to equalize.
Lucas Moura followed up with a Spurs counter-attack, which also found its way to Son to beat Ederson a second time, with a perfect finish.
But Bernardo Silva’s shot to the near post was deflected by Danny Rose and skipped past Hugo Lloris at his near post.
That made it 2-2. There weren’t yet 11 minutes on the clock.
An age would pass until the next goal – 10 minutes, almost exactly – when De Bruyne ripped the defense apart with a low cross into no-man’s land. At the far post, Sterling hit it against the grain to beat Lloris a second time.
Son very nearly scored a sixth first-half goal before halftime.
Remarkably, the expected goals for the first half suggested that it should have produced only about one goal, let alone four of them.
City dominated much of the second half. And Pep Guardiola’s star-studded squad pressed for the necessary fourth tally to overcome the away-goals rule and got close several times. Again and again, Spurs only just escaped.
Naturally, in this unlikeliest of games, that meant Spurs would respond with a dangerous spell, only for City to score on a counter-attack.
On a De Bruyne breakaway, Sergio Aguero smashed a shot past Lloris at the near post.
A dejected Spurs managed to summon a final goal though. Fernando Llorente, a veteran striker long out of favor in North London but brought on in the first half when midfielder Moussa Sissoko was injured, redirected a corner off his waist. Or perhaps his arm. VAR was consulted, but it was so desperately close that even endless replays were inconclusive. The goal was allowed to stand.
Spurs bunkered in, surviving a point-blank volley from Ilkay Gundogan, which somehow went high off the bar. And then VAR proved decisive again. It wasn’t so forgiving this time around, when Sterling seemed to have scored the liberating winner deep in injury time. The technology went against City a second time.
Freed by the final whistle, Spurs have pieced together their deepest run in the Champions League era, managing to do it without their star striker Harry Kane, who was hurt in the first leg.
Guardiola, meanwhile – who, weirdly, demanded a strong performance from City’s home fans before the game — has now failed to reach the semifinals in all three of his seasons in Manchester, in spite of working with one of Europe’s best and deepest teams. He now hasn’t won the Champions League since 2011, in spite of managing perennial contenders in Barca, Bayern Munich and City.
Because not even the famously detail-obsessed Guardiola can account for the unpredictability of the Champions League, which continues to drop jaws on a weekly basis.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: