A blue line here, a red line there and a hair’s breadth between Harry Kane and Emerson Royal.
These were the fine margins which left Tottenham’s hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout stage in the balance, after Kane’s last-minute winner was disallowed by the VAR for offside last night.
The decision to chalk off Kane’s 95th-minute strike felt like another frustrating example of football striving for a perfection, which is surely unachievable when the margins are this fine.
It took a full four minutes for the VAR to determine that Kane was fractionally ahead of Emerson before scooping home what he thought was a precious winner, while the official also determined that the final touch off a Sporting player, which directed the ball into his path, was not deliberate.
This type of decision is now commonplace and indiscriminate — despite Antonio Conte’s protests that the VAR would never have been brave enough to make the same call against “a big team” — but as the stadium decompressed from wild scenes of celebration, it was hard not to reflect, again, that the technology is having a profoundly negative impact on supporters’ enjoyment of the game.
Conte was furious, and was shown a red card, while even the statesmanlike Hugo Lloris was baffled by the decision.
The head coach had said before the game that teams competing in Europe this season need a deep squad, no major injuries and good fortune to remain competitive. After the last two matches, Conte will reflect that Spurs are currently benefitting from none of the above.
The VAR’s decision could yet have a major impact on Spurs’ run-in and ensures that there will be no rest for Conte’s stars before the break for the World Cup. Had the goal stood, Tottenham would have won the group, leaving next week’s match in Marseille as a welcome dead rubber and giving Conte the chance to keep his stars fresh for the League games against Liverpool and Leeds.
As it is, Spurs need a result in France to ensure qualification and face another high-intensity match after Saturday’s visit to Bournemouth.
By contrast, Liverpool, the visitors to Spurs on Sunday week, will be able to rest players next week after winning their own group last night.
The sense that Spurs’ half-season is unravelling on account of fine margins was amplified by another subdued first half, when the hosts paid the price for a lack of intensity by falling behind to Marcus Edwards’ precision strike.
It was another reminder that dropping off for any period of time is usually costly at this level and Spurs cannot afford any more fallow periods in next week’s decider at the Stade Velodrome.
If there was a positive for Spurs, it came in the form of a bright cameo by Bryan Gil, who added spark in the final 30 minutes.
Conte will be hoping the margins start to fall in his side’s favour.
Conte is not convinced by the 21-year-old, believing he does not have the physique to hold his own in English football, but Spurs remain desperately short of creativity when Dejan Kulusevski is absent, and Gil suggested he could be a more effective solution than Lucas Moura.
He won the corner from which Rodrigo Bentancur equalised and Conte will surely be considering giving the Spaniard his first League minutes of the season on Saturday.
Spurs also need a result on the south coast following back-to-back League defeats, and Conte will be hoping the margins start to fall in his side’s favour, even if there is to be no let up from the schedule.