MANCHESTER, England — The Etihad Stadium did not fall silent, not quite. There was noise still coming from the three tall tiers of Tottenham Hotspur fans at the far end. There must have been — they were falling over one another, thousands of them, a swaying, teetering, writhing mass of arms and legs.
Inside the celebrations, the roar must have been thunderous. Outside, it sounded muffled, as if the away sections had accidentally been flooded, and the Spurs fans were actually underwater. The noise did not seem to travel. Instead, the stadium felt quiet: a heavy, airless quiet, the sound of hearts sinking.
The first few minutes of this Champions League second-leg quarterfinal match contained enough to render it a classic. Manchester City taking the lead in under four minutes to leave the series poised perfectly: tied 1-1 on aggregate, nearly an entire game to be played. Tottenham immediately striking back — not once, but twice, thanks to the sparkling Son Heung-min — to leave City needing to score four goals to reach the semifinals, to maintain its hopes of an unprecedented four trophies.
City, by most assessments the best team in England and most likely the finest in Europe, did not seem fazed. Bernardo Silva equalized in the 11th minute; Raheem Sterling put Pep Guardiola’s team ahead 10 minutes later. It had been wild and breathless and carefree and emotionally exhausting, and not quite half an hour had passed.
But that is not what Guardiola or his players will remember, through gritted teeth and cold sweats, in the days and weeks and months to come. It is not what Spurs Manager Mauricio Pochettino and his players will share, for years, as one of the defining moments of their careers. They will, instead, remember what happened in the 91st and 92nd minute, just before the silence.
There will be time, in the days to come, to examine exactly what it means that Manchester City — and Guardiola — failed to reach the final four of the Champions League yet again; to draw parallels with their defeat against Liverpool last season and against Monaco the year before that; to ask why Guardiola, the finest coach of his generation, has not returned to this competition’s final since he won it in 2011.
There will be a chance to wonder if the team Guardiola has built, which can seem flawless for so much of a season, has some psychological fragility concealed deep within its soul, an improbably specific affliction that applies only in Champions League quarterfinals. There will be opportunity, yet, to decide that a mere domestic treble does indeed count as success, and that City’s dominance of the Premier League should not be diminished by its very occasional failings in Europe.
As for Tottenham, there will be time to assess the scale of the club’s achievement — and particularly that of Pochettino — not only eliminating City when few gave it much of a prayer, but doing so in a season in which Spurs became the only club in Premier League history to go an entire campaign without signing a single player.
In the 59th minute here, Sergio Agüero, one of the most prolific strikers in English history, scored City’s fourth goal, the one that would have sent Guardiola’s team through. Fernando Llorente, a 34-year-old who spent a good portion of the last few months being lampooned for his lack of mobility, nudged home the strike that made it 4-3 on the night, and 4-4 on aggregate, putting Spurs back on top and City out.
Those two scorers were, with due respect to Llorente, a stark reminder of the disparity in resources between these teams. No wonder, after the game, Pochettino described all of his players as “heroes.”
But before each club contemplates the ultimate consequences, both must come to terms with the cause: that minute, those few seconds, in which both tasted the most bitter disappointment and the sharpest joy, as bedlam swept through the Etihad, desolation trailing in its wake.
It started with Sterling, as the clock ticked down through injury time and as City threw everything it could conjure at its opponent, searching for one more goal. Agüero burst through, into Tottenham’s penalty area, and picked out his teammate. Sterling, as he has done so often this season, swept the ball home.
The Etihad seemed to melt. Sterling ran to the corner, chased and consumed by the rest of City’s players. This is a team marked by a supreme self-confidence, a belief that when it needs to score, it will score. Even for City, though, this felt like a close-run thing. The emotion that met the goal proved that: the stands in tumult, strangers hugging, flags and scarves twirling.
Tottenham’s players had defended resolutely, ever since Llorente’s goal — entirely against the run of play, not too far off accidental — and given Pochettino’s team something to hang on to. Sterling had broken their resistance and their hearts. They sank to the turf, or crouched low on their haunches, holding their heads in their hands.
And then, and then. Replays of the goal, shown on television, suggested Agüero might have been offside in the build-up. Cuneyt Cakir, the referee, put his finger to his ear, the unwitting signal that the Video Assistant Referee had some information to share.
The celebrations abated. City’s players looked up, baffled. Tottenham’s remained prostrate, seemingly unaware of the shifting tide.
The stands fell still. Fans bounced on their heels, wondering what the holdup was, turning to one another for reassurance. Cakir waited, his finger to his ear. The Tottenham fans, delayed by grief, started to murmur. The players raised themselves to their feet.
Cakir blew his whistle. He mimed a box with his hands. V.A.R. remains something of a novelty, but we have already internalized its semaphore. He raised his arm, signaling the offside call in place of the goal. There was the distant, muffled cheer from those three tall tiers, but it seemed to be happening somewhere else. The rest of the stadium drew its breath, and the sound disappeared in the vacuum.
Manchester City has been nearly perfect this season. It has won one domestic cup, and is in the final of the other. If it wins its five remaining Premier League games, it will retain the title. But the Champions League is the ultimate test, the stage on which greatness is written. And once again, the players knew they had fallen short — by the finest, slightest of margins — once again. Spurs celebrated. City sank on to the field, everything snatched away in just a few seconds, no more than a minute, and the silence, the near silence, said it all.
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