Ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium in January 2023, less than official vendors were trying to flog scarves that struck a chord of perceived injustice among the home support streaming into the ground.
Emblazoned across a set of blue and white stripes was a simple, uncompromising message: “F#*K VAR”.
Tottenham have repeatedly proven to be a spoke in the wheel of City’s imperious winning machine in recent years. While the identity of the Spurs coach in the dugout opposite to Pep Guardiola has changed, their victories have invariably involved lethal attacks in transition and controversial refereeing decisions.
Here is how three divisive letters have come to haunt City’s clashes with Spurs.
Raheem Sterling kicked off the chaos for Manchester City against Spurs after three minutes and 51 seconds, levelling the aggregate score at 1-1 in their bonkers 2019 Champions League quarter-final. Almost two hours later, Sterling thought that he had won it in the third minute of stoppage time.
City led a crazy contest 4-2 on the night (4-3 on aggregate) after an hour of breathless football. Yet, Fernando Llorente managed to bundle a 73rd-minute corner over the line to draw Spurs level on aggregate and with the advantage of away goals.
A lengthy VAR check cleared Llorente’s goal despite the whiff of foul play which Guardiola flagged post-game. “I support VAR but maybe from one angle Fernando Llorente’s goal is handball, maybe from the referee’s angle it is not,” City’s coach mused.
The Etihad reached the decibel level Guardiola has demanded ever since when Sterling stabbed in City’s fifth of the night only to be silenced by VAR. A review revealed that Sergio Aguero had strayed offside in the buildup, condemning City to what their coach lamented as a “cruel” exit.
A brief 122 days after their European exit, City were denied another stoppage-time winner against Spurs on the same ground. Gabriel Jesus was the robbed scorer on this occasion, left to curse the distant officials who spotted the ball skidding off Aymeric Laporte’s arm before falling the way of the Brazilian.
“We have to accept it,” Guardiola sighed after the second game of the 2019/20 Premier League campaign. “It’s tough because we scored a goal late on. But ask VAR people, not me.”
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was circumspect. “We need to accept that [VAR],” the Argentine reasoned. “I was a little bit critical of VAR but now we have to accept the rules. Now it benefits us. No doubt it won’t benefit us at other times. It’s a rule we need to accept.”
Leave it to Jose Mourinho to cry foul play in a match where his opposition feels painfully wronged. Tottenham’s head coach wanted a red card for Sterling and took his ire out on those at Stockley Park. “For me, Mike Dean [gave a] good performance. The problem is the VAR,” Guardiola‘s familiar foe jabbed. “I thought I was going to love VAR the same way I love goal-line technology.”
After a lengthy delay, City were eventually awarded a penalty which Ilkay Gundogan had saved by Hugo Lloris. Sterling was first to the rebound before Tottenham’s keeper crashed into him, prompting riotous appeals for another spot kick. Neither the on-pitch official nor VAR were moved. After a word in the ear from his assistant, Mourinho leapt from the dugout to demand that Sterling receive a second yellow card for simulation.
PGMOL released a statement after the match patting themselves on the back for getting both decisions correct.
In a reversal of roles compared to the beginning of the 2019/20 campaign, it was Jesus’ handball that robbed Aymeric Laporte of a goal against Tottenham in November 2020. A slick finish from the centre-back teed up by Jesus would have levelled a game that City went on to lose 2-0.
This latest VAR-assisted denial occurred during a desperately frustrating sequence for Guardiola against Mourinho. Across City’s matches against Spurs in 2020, the Manchester outfit rattled off 41 shots without scoring a legal goal.
To add to City’s complaints, both ‘goals’ scored by Jesus and Laporte would now be allowed to stand after the law was amended to only disallow accidental handballs if the scorer committed the offence.
Even when VAR was working in City’s favour, they still couldn’t get past Spurs.
Antonio Conte took his Spurs team to the Etihad in February 2022 staring down the barrel of the first three-game losing streak in his managerial career. The Italian proceeded to watch VAR wipe off a goal for Harry Kane in the 73rd minute which would have given his visitors a 3-1 lead before the video officials awarded City a 92nd-minute penalty.
Unlike previous VAR spot kicks City have won, Riyad Mahrez converted from 12 yards. Yet, there was still time for Kane to legally find his way onto the scoresheet again, nodding in a 95th-minute winner.