Manchester: “I am in love with VAR,” joked Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino after his side escaped with a 2-2 draw at Manchester City thanks to Gabriel Jesus’s late winner for the Premier League champions being ruled out on review.
Yet, the scoreline masked the fact that Spurs, despite reaching the Champions League final last season and breaking the club’s transfer record for French midfielder Tanguy Ndombele, still look well off potential challengers to City’s throne as champions.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men finished 27 points behind City last season, on Saturday 27 was the difference in the shot count as Tottenham mustered three to the hosts’ 30.
City will bemoan their luck and lacklustre defending that allowed Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura to cancel out goals from Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero with Spurs’ only two efforts on target.
However, there was no evidence in the performance of a slipping of standards after winning the first domestic treble of trophies English football had ever seen last season.
“When the people say: ‘you can do better’, better than this I don’t know if it is possible,” said a proud City manager Pep Guardiola.
“We played incredible. The best game we have played in our time together, it was so good. We played good, but we could not win.
“If we continue to play in that way we won’t have regrets and that is the most important thing.”
City were pushed all the way last season by a Liverpool side who recorded the third highest points tally in English football history with 97 and yet still could not topple Guardiola’s men for the title.
The European champions have started the Premier League season with two wins to take an early two-point lead over the champions and are clearly the most likely challengers to prevent City a hat-trick of titles.
However, if anything Guardiola’s men look stronger last season with Kevin de Bruyne restored to full fitness, while Spanish international Rodri was slotted seamlessly into midfield.
“We have to be proud because to play at this level against a team like Tottenham is really good for the rest of the season,” said De Bruyne, who set up both City goals.
“It’s always more difficult in a big game but we almost totally dominated them.”
Hopes that Tottenham could kick on after a season in which they eliminated City in dramatic fashion to reach the club’s first ever Champions League final and moved into a new 62,000 capacity stadium to mount a title bid look fragile.
Ndombele has impressed in his first two matches, while the signings of Giovani lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon will add greater depth and Son Heung-min is still to return from suspension.
However, Pochettino is bracing himself for the possibility Christian Eriksen or Belgian defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen could yet depart before the transfer window across Europe closes on September 2.
All three have entered the final year of their contracts and could leave the club for free next summer if they are not sold in the coming weeks.
“The squad is still unsettled, we need to wait until the transfer window in Europe is closed to see which player we are going to have and of course that is never easy,” said Pochettino, who started Alderweireld and Eriksen.
VAR may have ridden to Spurs’ rescue for now, but on this evidence they face a long season ahead if they are to keep up with the relentless pace set by City and Liverpool.