MANCHESTER, England — Don’t mention VAR at Manchester City.
Not only has it led to the Premier League champions being on the wrong end of a series of big decisions in recent months, usually against Tottenham, but it has also left us wondering whether Pep Guardiola and Sergio Aguero are back “on” again after their very public spat during Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Spurs at the Etihad.
More about Pep and Sergio later, because even their touchline row on 65 minutes became a thread in the VAR furore at the end of the game. But for the second time in four months, City saw a decisive stoppage-time goal against Spurs snatched away by VAR, leaving them with a 2-2 draw rather than a 3-2 victory.
They also had a claim for a penalty overlooked in the first half after Erik Lamela wrestled Rodri to the ground when, according to Guardiola, “the VAR was in a moment where they were taking a coffee.”
Back in April, Raheem Sterling and everyone else inside the stadium thought he had made it 5-3 on the night in the Champions League quarterfinal, second-leg — a goal which would have taken City into the semifinals — only for VAR to rule it out after a lengthy, confusing wait for offside. Earlier in that game, VAR allowed Fernando Llorente’s goal for Spurs to stand, despite it being bundled in off the Spaniard’s arm.
Take note of that goal because it had a significant repercussion for City in this game, when VAR disallowed Gabriel Jesus’s goal two minutes into stoppage time after a hand-ball earlier in the move by Aymeric Laporte.
The handball rule was changed in the summer, partly because of the impact of Llorente’s goal in the Champions League, so that any handball, intentional or otherwise, in the build-up to a goal would lead to the goal being disallowed. (Leander Dendoncker had a goal ruled out for Wolves last week because of a handball earlier in the move by Willy Boly.)
So City have now suffered twice at the hands of VAR when it comes to handball but have been on both sides the coin, with one being allowed to stand when it ended up in the back of their net, but the other, scored by themselves, being chalked off.
“I thought we left that situation in Tottenham in the Champions League last season,” Guardiola said. “But it is the same. The referee and VAR disallow it. It’s the second time [it’s happened] — it’s tough. It’s honestly tough, but it’s the way it is.
“The whistle inside matches now isn’t quite clear, but they believe it’s hands with [Fernando] Llorente in the Champions League and sometimes they don’t.”
In the crazy, confusing new world of VAR, all three crucial decisions that have gone against City have actually been correct under the rules of the game at the time. That didn’t stop the home fans booing the officials off the pitch and chanting “VAR out!” as they trudged out of the ground.
One key issue is the time it takes to the reach the decisions and inform the players and fans: just like Sterling last season, Jesus was left to celebrate for a lengthy period before the big screens announced that the goal had been disallowed.
Another problem is the supposedly strict interpretation of the new handball rule, which allows for no contact with the arm whatsoever. Yet there have already been instances this season when similar incidents have gone unpunished, most notably one involving Andreas Christensen during Chelsea’s Super Cup clash with Liverpool on Wednesday.
“There was no penalty when the ball hit Christensen’s hand against Liverpool,” Guardiola said. “It happened last week with Wolves and we also saw for Chelsea on Wednesday — the keeper wasn’t on his line — Adrian in the penalty shoot-out, when he saved the penalty.
“They [VAR] have to fix it.”
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Mauricio Pochettino, having benefited once again from VAR at the Etihad, insisted that teams will have to brace themselves for being on both sides of the argument this season.
“It’s unbelievable this stadium, with VAR,” said Pochettino. “Especially for Tottenham, but we need to accept it. I was a little bit critical of VAR, but now we have to accept the rules. Now it benefits us, but no doubt it won’t benefit us at other times. It’s a rule we need to accept.”
Yet Guardiola and City are finding VAR a tough innovation to love right now.
Before Jesus’s goal was disallowed, the City manager and Aguero celebrated by hugging in the technical area, with both seeming to suggest that they overreacted in the 65th minute by arguing and finger-pointing after the forward had been substituted in favour of Jesus.
It was a heated disagreement and a clear display of dissent by Aguero towards Guardiola, but with Jesus appearing to score the winner, all was apparently forgiven. Yet with the goal ruled out, how does that leave Guardiola and his star forward?
“He [Aguero] believed that I was upset with him for the goal we conceded, from a corner,” Guardiola said.
“It’s just a fact that I wanted movement in that moment; he thought I was upset with him.
“I have been a player, I have been there. We talked after, we talked during the game. I like him a lot, he is a player who has feelings on the pitch, and that is what I want.”
Guardiola and Aguero have patched it up, at least, but it will take a while longer for City to kiss and make up with VAR.