On the touchline in the final moments of the game, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino stood together in discussion: the surreal end to another surreal game in which the video assistant referee had rewritten history and all hell had broken loose.
For the second week with the champions, VAR changed the story again, denying Gabriel Jesus a winner in time added on at the end of a remarkable game when the VAR Graham Scott spotted a ball brush the hand of Aymeric Laporte in the build-up. Once again the Etihad erupted, as it did at Raheem Sterling’s late goal in the Champions League in April, and once again when they had picked up hats and glasses and all the stuff that goes flying in those moments, they saw that the VAR review was in progress.
It might make for a great television twist, but VAR in action, in the stadium, does not feel like football at all. An unseen hand picking through the chaos and the excitement looking for details that went unnoticed at the time. The spell is broken in that moment, and the touchline conference between Pochettino and Guardiola in the final minutes felt like the conversation of two men who had given up trying to make sense of it all.
How City did not win the game was the afternoon’s greatest mystery. They dominated it from start to finish and had 30 attempts on Tottenham’s goal compared to three from the visitors that yielded two goals. Not only that but also a touchline argument between Guardiola and Sergio Aguero, scorer of the second goal, which was only ended by the intervention of the assistant Mikel Arteta, as the City manager refused to back down.
In the moments when it looked like Aguero’s replacement Gabriel Jesus had scored the winning goal in injury-time Guardiola and his Argentine striker shared an embrace in what they assumed was the moment of victory. Then everyone was watching referee Michael Oliver draw a television in the air with his fingers and the scoreline on the big screens flicked back to 2-2.
The handball decision was right under the law, as devised by Ifab’s technical director David Elleray who has to rewrite his VAR protocol for every inconsistency that gets exposed. All handballs that lead indirectly to a goal have to be disallowed and Guardiola’s complaint afterwards was that not all of them are. He cited the Fernando Llorente goal that won the Champions League quarter-final for Spurs in April, another by Andreas Christensen in the European Super Cup and before long he was on to Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian moving off his line in the same game.
That said, he declared this one of the greatest games City had played in his time at the club as he tends to do in these moments. “It is what is,” he said, “Accept it. It makes us stronger. The way we played against the second best team in Europe, I don’t know if it is possible to play better than this. We conceded just two shots on target. We played incredibly, the best game we have played in our time together. It was so good.”
Guardiola refused to acknowledge that Harry Kane’s second-half attempt to reprise his pre-season long distance goal against Juventus counted as a legitimate shot. As for Aguero, Guardiola said the argument had been over a misunderstanding after he had blamed the Argentine for his role in Spurs’ second goal from Lucas Moura. “I love him [Aguero] a lot because I know his feelings,” Guardiola said.
It was hard to say that Spurs deserved the point but they took their chances. Moura was transformative as a second-half substitute, scoring with his first touch within 19 seconds. Apart from that they held off City as best they could with Erik Lamela getting a first-half equaliser after Sterling had scored the first, his fourth of the season.
There was one more complaint from Guardiola, that his side were not awarded a penalty in the 11th minute when Lamela pushed over the City midfielder Rodri as the two grappled at a corner. “In that minute VAR was taking a coffee,” said Guardiola, essaying a joke amid all his trademark head-rubbing despair. He invited the assembled audience to “go to London” and ask VAR Scott in person.
From Pochettino there was a reluctant admission that City had dominated the game and then he was straight into his own problems. It was a day for those familiar Pochettino hints at some kind of upset taking place off-stage. It does not take much for the Spurs manager to allude to disquiet behind the scenes and he was at it again, comparing his resources against those of City and warning that things could get worse before they get better.
“We need to improve a lot,” he said. “The squad is still uncertain. We need to wait until the transfer window in Europe closes to see which players we are going to have [for the season]. We faced the Premier League winners, a very consistent team who are improving every season. They are signing players who came from teams that were [used to] winning like Cancelo from Juventus. We are in a different process. We can’t compare both teams. Most important is the fight and the belief and the character.”
Kevin De Bruyne was the game’s dominant creative force in the first half and he was consumed by the usual determination to get things done. Both City goals came from the right boot of De Bruyne, first when he had spotted the run of Sterling who headed in nicely at the back post. The second was struck by De Bruyne at just the right moment, with just the right pace on it to meet the run of Aguero between the two Spurs centre-backs.
In between Lamela was permitted to travel quite some distance with the ball and beat Ederson with a left-foot shot that was not even in the corner of the goal, City’s only first-half mistake. They missed many more chances before Spurs’ second. Moura came on for a corner, out-jumped Kyle Walker and the game was level.
Aguero was summoned to come off on 65 minutes, Guardiola’s hand on the striker’s chest as they briefly clashed. The pair were making their peace as the VAR review came through for Jesus’ goal. “This stadium,” Pochettino said later with a smile. “It’s unbelievable with VAR and Tottenham.”
Full time: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
A point apiece! Does that tell the story of the match? Yes...and no.
When Raheem Sterling smartly headed City into the lead after 20 minutes, this scenario wouldn't have crossed many minds. City were dominant, purposeful and going for it. Then, Erik Lamela swept home a criminally easy equaliser and their fragility was exposed.
After Lucas Moura popped up with another unexpected leveller, the kitchen sink was slowly summoned. Gabriel Jesus thought he'd won it at the death...but the VAR said no. We might have a few of those moments this season.
It's there! City have finally battered down the Spurs door! A corner falls for Gabriel Jesus, who has the cool head not to snatch at the chance, spots the gap and bends the ball ho....
Nope! VAR says Aymeric Laporte handballed it! Goal disallowed!
90+1 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Four added minutes: Spurs bring on Oliver Skipp for Eriksen.
88 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Very tense now. City attack, Spurs try and counter. Otamendi cleans out Moura - quite legally - to stop one sucker-punch, but City are running out of steam (and time) at the other end.
85 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Zinchenko limps off, City have 10 men. And Spurs are bringing on £55m-worth of Giovani Lo Celso for Lamela. A chance to make an instant impact here...
83 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Zinchenko goes down holding a hamstring, just a few minutes after City's third substitution. Doubt he'll be much more than a passenger for these closing moments, and Spurs still look dangerous on the break...
80 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Kyle Walker whips in a vicious cross from the right, so much so that Jesus barely has time to get there, let alone control a header. Riyad Mahrez replaces Bernardo Silva for City, and has 10 minutes to find them a way through.
78 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
City roll the dice: the towering Rodri off, the diminutive David Silva on.
76 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Close! Moura gets in behind Zinchenko down the right and looks for Kane in the middle, only for Otamendi to scramble back and concede the corner. City clear this one.
73 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Jesus chests down a Bernardo Silva cross to take a defender out of the game, but the ball can't quite drop quickly enough for him to get his volley away. The storm is coming...
71 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Otamendi is livid after being penalised - inevitably - for going up with Lloris to contest a Sterling cross from the left. That's a law that will never be tweaked.
68 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
City have had 37 touches in the Spurs box. Spurs have had four in the City area. We're in a brief lull right now as the home side prepare for a 20-minute onslaught.
65 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Aguero off, Jesus on.
64 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
City are readying Gabriel Jesus, as they try and snatch three points from the jaws of throwing two points away.
61 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
It's all happening. Lloris tips over a Rodri effort and, from the corner, the keepers gets into no man's land, Bernardo flicks the ball on to the bar and Aguero is foiled from four yards by....Hugo Lloris. Phew.
58 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
Harry Kane shoots from 60 yards. Ederson has to chase it over to the corner flag.
GOAL! Man City 2 Tottenham 2 (Moura, 57 min)
This is just weird. Lucas Moura, who has just been introduced in place of Harry Winks, meets an inswinging Lamela corner and - far, far too easily - glances a header beyond Ederson!
55 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Chances!First Aguero is slid in on his left foot and he hammers over. Then Bernardo Silva is denied by Lloris after the ball deflects off a Spurs boot into his path. Still the lead stays at a single goal...
52 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Aguero flicks the ball for De Bruyne to swerve in from the left and swipe a left-foot shot comfortably wide. Time for City to turn these knife-through-butter moments into a third goal, though.
50 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
De Bruyne cruises through midfield and towards the Spurs area, as Aguero makes a run to his right, and his shotis deflected over. The corner is half-cleared for Oleksandr Zinchenko to hammer a shot goalwards - Lloris gets down well to palm away.
47 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Both sides indulge their goalkeepers in some dicey penalty-area possession. Both pass the test with ease, but Ederson really is something else.
We go again.
No changes for either side, but assume there will be a tweak to the Spurs gameplan.
Half time: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Punctuated only by the anomaly that was Erik Lamela's equaliser, City's dominance has been gentle but total. The ease with which they get their various moving parts into attacking positions is without match in this country.
A rare Raheem Sterling header - and it was a lovely one, from a narrow angle - gave City their early lead, and another De Bruyne cross set up Sergio Aguero to restore it.
Spurs aren't out of it - Pochettino will assure them of that - but they will have to find a way out of this stranglehold.
44 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Chance!De Bruyne delivers again - more of a pass than a cross, perhaps - from the right flank and Ilkay Gundogan can stride on to the ball....but his shot slides just the wrong side of the post.
Most PL assists by Kevins:— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) August 17, 2019
De Bruyne 49
40 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
City slow things down, racking up the passes, before Ederson and then Rodri swing the ball left and right. Spurs refuse to budge. This has been a clean and tidy first half, and it's whizzed by.
36 min: Man City 2 Tottenham 1
Chance! Back come City again, De Bruyne ghosts into the right channel, past Sanchez...but blasts a wild finish high and wide from an angle. Should be three.
GOAL! Man City 2 (Aguero, 35 min) Tottenham 1
...and that's why.
De Bruyne is the emphatic creator again, whipping in a low cross from the right, and Sergio Aguero is there - six yards out - to steer the ball on into the far corner. Lloris had zero chance.
33 min: Man City 1 Tottenham 1
Bernardo Silva, of whom we've seen little so far, tries to find a yard of space to let a left-foot curler go from 25 yards out, but it's blocked. City not looking impatient, though.
29 min: Man City 1 Tottenham 1
Spurs have shocked themselves into this match, essentially. City are now hesitating, the attacks are slowing down, and the visitors are finally getting on the ball.
26 min: Man City 1 Tottenham 1
Yellow! Sterling goes into the book for dragging back Harry Winks on the touchline as Spurs look to break out again.
GOAL! Man City 1 Tottenham 1 (Lamela, 23 min)
Hello! One attack, one shot, one oddly easy goal!
Tottenham, stung into action, finally get the ball into an interesting area, Erik Lamela picks it up, advances to the edge of the box and steers a left-foot shot around Ederson and into the net! The goalkeeper's positioning very much open to question there.
GOAL! Man City 1 (Sterling, 20 min) Tottenham 0
What a goal! What a cross! What a finish!
Kevin De Bruyne has the ball laid on an asbolute plate for him to whip in a perfect, gorgeous peach of a cross for Raheem Sterling to line up a header at the back post, across the goalkeeper and into the far side-netting! Immaculate.
18 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
City try and draw Spurs out of their defensive shell, but the purple shirts don't indulge them. Referee Michael Oliver comes over for a quick chat with Danny Rose about taking an eon to complete a simple throw-in.
14 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
City continue to exploit the gaps on the Tottenham right. Meanwhile, the visitors have barely strung consecutive passes together.
11 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
City attack again, with an almost unthinking fluidity, but have to settle for another couple of corners. Rodri goes down under a dubious-looking challenge from Erik Lamela - replays suggest VAR ought to have intervened, actually - but Spurs survive.
8 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
Electric counter-attack by Kyle Walker, who nods the ball past Davinson Sanchez and charges after it, before squaring to Sterling, whose shot is deflected over. Spurs clear the corner, but it's all City so far.
5 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
Ederson launches another City attack with a frankly ridiculous 70-yard pass to Sterling, but a SPurs head is there to clear the cross into the middle.
2 min: Man City 0 Tottenham 0
City immediately on the front foot. A long ball over the head of Kyle Walker-Peters looks for Raheem Sterling, but the Spurs right-back adjusts to nod safely back to Hugo Lloris.
City get things going at the Etihad, Spurs are in their pleasant alternative colours of "1994/95 purple".
Players are out...
...and kick-off is moments away.
The Manchester City players are wearing shirts in tribute to the ruptured cruciate ligament of Leroy Sane.
One from the Retro Manchester City/Tottenham Half-Volley Department
Tom Huddlestone ensuring that this shot stayed very much hit.
'Eriksen is not at Real or Barcelona’s level'
Jamie Carragher used his exclusive Telegraph column this week to emphasise that Harry Kane - not Christian Eriksen - is the crucial cog in the Spurs machine.
But let’s not forget Spurs’ tame Champions League final performance was not solely due to Kane not being 100 per cent.
Eriksen was fully fit in Madrid and gave an equally disappointing display. There was not much evidence of him being Spurs’ main man that night.
I do not write this to deride Eriksen, an excellent footballer who has shone in a Tottenham jersey. It is simply my belief that Kane is the one man in the squad Pochettino could not afford to lose in this window, or at any point in the last three years. If Eriksen goes before the end of the month it will be a significant setback, but you will not see the major clubs pursuing him with the vigour they would Kane. Eriksen is not at Real or Barcelona’s level.
Some players are a natural fit for a particular club, functioning so well because of how they are utilised by the manager, complementing those around him. My suspicion is Eriksen is such, his effectiveness as much a consequence of Pochettino’s tactical excellence rather than a superstar quality.
You can understand why any player’s head would be turned by interest from one of the major European clubs, but there are plenty of examples of those who found the perfect environment to flourish and sacrificed it to take that once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to the Nou Camp or Bernabeu, only to have regrets a year or two later. Eriksen might consider that if he has a decision to make.
'For the health of the league it feels that Spurs have to show the way and halt City'
So writes Jason Burt, who fears Manchester City could be out of sight before Christmas unless Tottenham can halt their winning Premier League run today.
The record of successive Premier League wins, only set by City in 2017-18, is 18 which could be equalled by the end of the month when they host Brighton. In fact, after Spurs, City have nine league games in a row against teams outside the traditional ‘Big Six’ and it is therefore not inconceivable that they could target 25 straight wins – if they win on Saturday - before facing Liverpool at Anfield in November.
Given Liverpool have fixtures against Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United in the meantime there is a genuine fear that the champions could already have opened up a significant lead even before their next likely challengers face them.
For the health of the league it feels that Spurs have to show the way and halt City, bringing that daunting winning streak to an end. Pochettino has led the way before. He inflicted defeat on Guardiola in their first Premier League meeting, in 2016, which was also the Spaniard’s first loss as City manager, having won his first six league games.
Going further back, Pochettino’s first win as coach of Espanyol in 2009 was against Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Nou Camp. It was also the last time Espanyol defeated their city rivals.
“We have a way we love to play,” Pochettino said of Spurs. “Sometimes you can win and lose but we are brave, we try to move forward, try to think of us before the opponent. I don’t know if that is the key to sometimes beating a team like Manchester City.
Manchester City tinker: Bernardo Silva, Nicolas Otamendi, Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero come in, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez drop to the bench. John Stones misses out altogether.
The line-up to kick-off our @premierleague home campaign!— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 17, 2019
XI | Ederson, Walker, Otamendi, Laporte, Zinchenko, Rodrigo, Gundogan, De Bruyne (C), Sterling, Bernardo, Aguero
Subs | Bravo, Jesus, Silva, Fernandinho, Mahrez, Cancelo, Foden
As expected by anyone who saw Spurs in the first half last weekend, Christian Eriksen is back in Pochettino's starting lineup.
#THFC: Lloris (C), Walker-Peters, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Rose, Winks, Sissoko, Ndombele, Eriksen, Lamela, Kane.— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) August 17, 2019
Latest from @WilliamHill (18+)https://t.co/0l5Duoee5K#PL ⚪️ #COYSpic.twitter.com/mcs9gNycyW
Title race: first blood?
You'd have been forgiven for thinking that Old Trafford played host to the season's first clash of the Premier League titans last weekend.
But there was something underwhelming about Victor Lindelof tussling with Tammy Abraham, Scott McTominay edging out Mateo Kovacic and Andreas Pereira vs Emerson. Manchester United and, to an even starker extent, Chelsea are unquestionably works in progress.
At the Etihad this evening, we're going to see something closer to two finished products. This summer, Manchester City and Tottenham recruited wisely, not wildly, and they - along with Liverpool - are the best placed to pick up where they left off last season: as the best team in England and the second-best in Europe.
More to the point, this feels a like a fresh rivalry. Unencumbered by the weight of history - sorry, Ricky Villa - and firmly concerned with the here and now. Both have rock-solid foundations: big managers, match-deciding players, shiny stadiums and - as Daniel Levy finally proved this summer - a willingness to spend on Europe's finest.
Liverpool will have plenty to add to the conversation, obviously, but this feels like round one of a nine-month slug-fest between the Premier League's title contenders. Can Spurs bridge that pesky gap to the very, very top? We'll draw some knee-jerk conclusions in a couple of hours...
Kick-off at 5.30pm, and team news is imminent...