With so much wrong in football, it is beholden upon us to acknowledge those occasions when it all goes right.
Let’s consider the evidence: four goals, a marvellously open game, two very good teams both trying to win, extra time, penalties, a full stadium, a raucous away support, £20 to get in. It’s churlish to say the night ended sourly, in a sudden-death shoot-out defeat. As the City fans filed into the dark north London streets, thoughts were only of pride in performance and exhilaration at witnessing so outstanding a Cup tie. Well done City. Well done Spurs. Well done football.
This was of course City’s second visit to White Hart Lane inside half a week, the first being that grimly unjust loss on Sunday. With injuries badly affecting City’s squad, options for Steve Bruce were decidedly thin – he’d had to make a slew of changes at the weekend, and another four were made here. Koren and Graham were pressed back into action perhaps a little earlier than was ideal, while Quinn made the starting XI and third-choice keeper Jakupović also came into the side.
It meant that on a cool autumnal evening in the capital, City lined up: Jakupović; Elmohamady, Davies, Bruce, McShane, Rosenior; Koren, Meyler, Quinn, Boyd; Graham. Tottenham made eight changes to the side, with only Paulinho, Vertonghen and Walker surviving.
Tottenham immediately started the better of the two sides, though the first opening of the evening came when Danny Graham ought to have converted a cross delivered from the left by Stephen Quinn – he was offside, but won’t have known that and it was an ugly miss.
Younes Kaboul ought to have opened the scoring on 10 minutes when a free header laxly served up from a corner was headed down but wide; however the home side took the lead their bright start deserved on 16 minutes, and it really was some goal.
Gylfi Sigurðsson was fed by Naughton and he turned past Curtis Davies before unleashing a spectacular shot that whizzed past Jakupović. You could argue that Davies ought to have been tighter, perhaps – but the strike was magnificent and while Spurs had laboured throughout on Sunday, they’d looked dangerous from the start here and merited the lead.
At this stage, it felt like being a long night for the wrong reasons for the City fans stuck in a corner White Hart Lane. City were barely in the game, but Tottenham missed a trick by failing to capitalise. The Tigers withdrew into themselves, urgently seeking not to let the game disappear. And it worked, with the home side continue to monopolise possession but rarely threatening Jakupović’s goal.
On 34 minutes, a change was required – Alex Bruce hobbled off to be replaced by Nick Proschwitz, necessitating a switch to 4-4-2. It invigorated City. Having ridden out the worst of the Tottenham tempest, we began to move forward with greater authority. Few chances, save for Elmohamady sending in a shot that Friedel palmed away, but at the interval we were at least in the game.
At the break City made another change when Graham was withdrawn for Aaron Mclean. That livened City up even more, and it’s no exaggeration to say we had the better of the opening skirmishes in the second half. A Mclean shot with his left foot went just wide of Friedel’s goal, with there being no certainty the American keeper would have reached it had it been on target.
On 53 City equalised. A neat move on the right culminated in Ahmed Elmohamady firing in a cross where Curtis Davies slid in to deflect the ball in off Friedel. The City end celebrated joyously, and a cup tie that looked beyond us 45 minutes earlier was suddenly in the balance.
City nearly pinched the lead moments later when Mclean headed a cross a yard wide. This was truly compelling stuff now, with both sides attacking with great enthusiasm. Tottenham once more assumed dominance in terms of possession, but always looked shaky when City sought to break. Aiming to win the game in regular time, Tottenham brought on Cririches for Naughton and Chadli for Eriksen, who then had to be replaced by Harry Kane. City replied by introducing Gedo for the wearying Koren, meaning both sides deployed all three substitutes inside the 90.
As the match wore on, Tottenham began to seriously threaten. Jakupović made a flying save from a Lamela free-kick from 22 yards, then Kane had the ball in the goal – sadly for him and the Spurs fans to our right, whose realisation was far from immediate, he’d already been given offside.
With the 90 minutes almost expired, Spurs came desperately close to winning the game when Kane’s long-range shot smacked into Jakupović’s left hand post and wide. However City held on, and we breathlessly prepared ourselves for another half hour.
With everyone now standing and bellowing themselves hoarse, City took the lead. A corner at the far end from the impressive George Boyd was met by Paul McShane and powered in. As the away end erupted, Paul McShane sprinted 80 yards to join in the celebrations, his joy as intense as our own.
Spurs, rattled, failed to threaten before the extra-time interval…and just after the recommencement of the game came one of the night’s most important moments. Gedo burst into space on the right hand edge of the area and with only Friedel to beat from around 15 yards, he swished a shot badly over. That’d have made it 3-1, and even a side as dangerous as Tottenham would have had a very hard time recovering.
We all knew what’d happen next, didn’t we?
Harry Kane, who really is a fine young player, collected the ball on the edge of the area. He was given just a little too much space by a tired defence to fashion a shooting opportunity, and it rolled past Jakupović and in. Gah.
From hoping to win, suddenly we were aiming not to lose. The players were visibly gutted at letting the lead slip, and were reduced to desperately hanging on as Tottenham sniffed a weakness – indeed, if not for a colossal challenge by McShane on Defoe, they’d have won it.
City held on, and the match went to penalties. Taken at the far end, Spurs went first. Sigurðsson scored but Mclean didn’t, timidly passing the ball straight into Friedel’s breadbasket. Sigh.
Defoe and Quinn both scored in the second round of spotkicks, Vertonghen and Boyd did likewise but Lamela’s effort was saved by Jakupović – when Gedo held his nerve, it was 3-3.
Kane and Proschwitz scored to take us to sudden death, and the extraordinarily high quality of penalties continued with Paulinho and Meyler taking us to 5-5, Kaboul and Rosenior making it 6-6, then Dembele and the peerless Paul McShane taking us to 7-7.
Then Walker scored, Elmohamady didn’t, and City were out.
Out, but worthy of immense praise. City have taken on Tottenham twice, and it’s taken a ridiculous penalty decision and then a penalty shoot-out to overcome us. For the better part of an hour last night, City took the game to a side that could conceivably win the title this season, created chances, worked tirelessly hard and looked every bit a side that belongs in the top flight.
It’s a great shame we didn’t take a point on Sunday. It’s equally unfortunate we’re not lining up in the quarter-finals of the League Cup for the first time, particularly as West Ham at home would have been a perfectly winnable fixture and a route into the semis.
As it is, these trips to Tottenham have brought no little pride and pleasure. This is one hell of a team we’ve got.