Liverpool, Manchester City and the VARPosted: April 21, 2019
This week the European Champions League finished it’s quarterfinal matches. This competition is considered to be the most important trophy a European club team can win. Given the level of competition in Europe compared with the rest of the world, it is also the toughest honor for any club team to bring home. And after the quarterfinals, when the number of teams left in the tournament drops from 8 to 4, some highly touted sides are bound to be among the fallen.
Sure enough, this year was no different as the club considered to be the favorite, Manchester City, bit the proverbial dust. Another top level team, Juventus, was also ousted, even with Cristiano Ronaldo (a 3 time consecutive winner with Real Madrid) trying his best to keep them in the tournament. Juve fell to upstart Ajax as the Dutch wonders continued to surprise everybody after they had knocked out the defending champions Real in the previous round. Actually there is only one team returning from last years semifinal, that being Liverpool, who took advantage of the best quarterfinal draw by comfortably defeating Porto, just as they did last year. The Reds are joined by Barcelona, Ajax and the Manchester City conqueror, Tottenham Hotspur from London.
The entrance of the VAR or Video Assisted Referee in the knockout rounds of this important competition created some controversy and turned the emotions of players and fans inside out during the matches this week. It was particularly notable in the games involving the English teams, and although they know what VAR is and many had some experience with it in last summer’s World Cup, their reactions to the process and calls were as watchable as the calls themselves.
The English Premier League did not use the VAR this year although it will come into play in the 2019-2020 season. So the use of the system, which is constantly evolving, is not a common circumstance for the teams coming from that league. As it is at present, the VAR has changed from it’s original concept of a couple years ago. At the beginning the process was going to be used on goals, penalty kicks and cards only and that strictly when the referee on the field decided he needed help or the VAR told him a grave error was made. But now the VAR looks at anything the people in the booth feel needs to be examined. If the call, missed or not, doesn’t affect the game the play continues, but if the call on the field seems to be wrong and its an important decision…the VAR comes into play. Of course, goals are pretty important plays so they become instant candidates for review. Notice that much of this process is dependent on video review AFTER the play has completed. So referees and assistant referees have begun holding their judgement and keeping their whistles and flags unused on goals, potential pk’s and some possible offsides so as not to interrupt play for an erroneous call. They know that the video will tell when it is looked at and they would rather be late with the correct decision than early with the wrong one. And it is this delay in calls, which has only begun to sink in with players and fans. Especially those from England.
Liverpool downed Porto 2-0 at home but the score didn’t quite tell the story. The Portuguese found their way through Liverpool’s defense numerous times and only the inept resemblance between Porto’s shooting and the Soccer Yoda trying futilely to score while playing FIFA 19 kept the result from being much closer. So there was a some doubt as to the outcome of the series considering Porto was at home where they hadn’t lost at all this year. On the other hand, if Liverpool could manage just one goal, the away goals rule would require the home team to hit for 4 and that was a near impossibility unless Porto vastly improved its shooting.
The game resembled the first match in the early stages, Porto attacking and missing decent opportunities. Then, at the 26 minute mark, one of Liverpool’s few attacks found its way to Mohammed Salah, who received the ball from his left side inside the Porto penalty area, although surrounded by Portuguese defenders. Sadio Mane did the right thing and looked for space he could get to behind the defense and made a run to Salah’s right. Mane was screened from Salah, but Salah knew where Sadio was going and managed to put a pass between the defense and right into Mane’s sliding feet.
Mane, not seeing exactly when Salah made the pass, thought he was offside. The assistant referee put his flag up after the ball went into the net. Several Liverpool players started moving back for the Porto kick from the spot of the offside, but Salah told them to wait…..the VAR was reviewing the play and it could be a good score. And sure enough, a few seconds later the referee signaled a goal. This prompted one of the most muted celebrations the Soccer Yoda has seen considering the importance of the score.
As seen in the above picture, Mane could not have been more forward without being offside, but his right foot was exactly as far as it could be toward the goal without being too far. It was a good goal and, quiet celebration or not, Liverpool had cemented its spot into the semi-finals. The final score of the match was 4-1 to the victors, taking any controversy or doubt away from the VAR decision, which was accurate without question anyway.
Meanwhile, at Manchester, one of the wildest games in the Soccer Yoda’s long memory was on. Tottenham entered with a 1-0 lead from their home match but that didn’t seem to mean much very quickly. The two sides put defensive soccer back about a century or so in racking up an amazing 4 goals in the first 11 minutes, scoring at a pace that resembled the NBA more than the EPL. City scored yet another goal after 21 minutes to tie the combined score of the series at 3-3. However, Spurs had two away goals to Manchester’s none so Tottenham was leading at that point. No problem …Sergio Aguerro, City’s main offensive threat, scored at the 59 minute mark and, amazingly, the Citizens had the advantage. But, in this crazy offensive show, that was not to hold……with 17 minutes left in the 90 minute game, Fernando Llorente took a cross that hit his arm then his hip and then went in the goal. Llorente ran around like he had fired it off his forehead, but everybody knew a review was coming. The referee looked at several views and correctly decided that the arm was in a natural position and the hip propelled the ball into the goal. Given the type of goal it was, the Llorente celebration seemed more of an attempt to sell the referee on the legitimacy of the score than a genuine “we did it!”, but again, these players haven’t seen the effect of the VAR very much so perhaps he forgot that the review was coming. The goal put Tottenham back into the lead and pushed Manchester against the wall.
American sports fans know all about video replay. Most any controversial play is followed by a wait to see if officials are “going to the tape” before reactions and emotions come pouring out of the involved fans. And this will probably happen in Europe and specifically England…. eventually. But VAR is very new and in extra time as the few remaining seconds were played, Spurs midfielder Christian Eriksen pushed a poor pass back which, importantly, hit City forward Bernardo Silva before bouncing to Aguerro. Sergio passed to Rahim Sterling who scored and pandemonium broke loose for the Citizens.
But those used to video replay knew better to react at that moment. True, no flag was raised, no interrupting whistle blew…..because VAR was ready and waiting…and even the commentators quickly mentioned that Aguerro could have been offside. The VAR refs notified on-field referee Cuneyt Cakir that they had a clear look at the play which he apparently did not. Upon looking at the replay it was easy to spot that when the ball hit Silva, which makes that the moment in question, Aguerro was slightly, but definitely, closer to the goal than the deepest involved defender and therefore the goal was nullified. And the emotions of all those reacting so quickly went totally sideways.
A few seconds later the game was over, Tottenham advanced to the semifinals and Manchester City was left gasping.
There has been much written and spoken about the VAR system. It appears at this point that the Video ASSISTED Referee is actually a Video ADDED Referee, a fourth game official that gets to make decisions in a delayed manner after reviewing tape of the play in question. And the existence of this added official delays calls so that the delayed decisions may be made without stopping play. There is no question that the VAR betters the percentage of correct calls over the traditional instant-on-the-field but possibly more wrong system. But with the waiting around for the decision built into the VAR process, is it more fun?