Tottenham versus Manchester City. Jose Mourinho against Pep Guardiola. The Premier League champions, title hopes hanging by the most threadbare of all threads, facing the Champions League finalists chasing a route into next season's tournament.
This was a truly special occasion for none of the above. No, this was the day VAR became the undisputed star of the show, hogging the limelight with barely a hint of trying to help the football match taking place.
February 2, 2020 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium confirmed to the watching world that FIFA's Video Assistant Referee has turned Premier League games into the Hunger Games. This sport is now 22 players and four officials thrust together at the mercy of the Stockley Park Gamemakers. For fans of farce, the odds are ever in your favour.
Credit must go to Sunday's match officials, too, the man in the middle the perfect conductor of the modern game's death march. Forget 'The People's Elbow' – the Mike Dean Mid-Air TV Screen is now the most electrifying move in sports entertainment. He is the ultimate master of ceremonies for football's silliest moments, of which VAR is now the lead actor.
It began 13 minutes in when Raheem Sterling planted studs into Dele Alli's ankle and VAR opted not to tell Dean to change the yellow card to a red. On the sidelines, Guardiola was relieved; a nonplussed Mourinho made his feelings clear.
Some 26 minutes later – it's hard to say, thanks to VAR – Sergio Aguero, who earlier hit the post, was tripped by Serge Aurier in the box and no foul was given. City seemed so certain of a mistake that they played somewhere close to two minutes of keep-ball before Dean finally intervened. First there was the whistle, then the customary touching of the earpiece, and lastly the TV monitor stencilled into the cool winter air, followed by the four-fingered thrust at the penalty spot. It was showmanship fit to grace London's West End. Mourinho could only sit in the stalls and smile.
Then the football narrative got in the way, albeit briefly. Ilkay Gundogan stepped up and saw his penalty saved by Hugo Lloris, meaning City have failed to score four of their past six attempts from the spot in all competitions. Within a second or two, it was back to VAR, Dean's decision not to give a penalty being scrutinised again after Sterling nipped in to beat Lloris to the rebound before his knees hit the turf. Players, coaches and spectators held their breath until, at last, came VAR's decree. There was to be no second penalty, no dive, and maximum exposure to the headlines.
City players were incensed. Spurs demanded a second booking for Sterling. Mourinho leapt from his chair to argue the case with the fourth official. Dean sent everyone back to their positions, withdrew the yellow card from his pocket, and waited. He was now in his element, Milton's Lucifer from Paradise Lost made flesh: the wary fiend had emerged from Chaos to stand upon the brink of Hell, and looked a while, pondering his voyage. He first booked Toby Alderweireld, then strode further into the City half to Oleksandr Zinchenko and flashed yellow his way, too. Only then was football allowed to resume.
So it was that a top-level game became wholly, inexorably about VAR, Tottenham's potentially title-race-deciding win a mere sideshow. Zinchenko's correct second booking for a body-check on Harry Winks was only noteworthy because of the first-half nonsense. The fact Winks played one of his best games in a Spurs shirt, shackling City's midfield runners and controlling the space in which they thrive with barely a misstep, was a footnote. A sublime debut goal from Steven Bergwijn, a chest-and-volley of impudent quality, and a deflected second from Son Heung-min were simply part of the encore.
Spurs are up to fifth, four points off the top four. City have now lost six games and sit 22 points adrift of Liverpool, who can win the title on March 21. Mourinho showed he can still outfox Guardiola, still best the very best in the business. City had 18 shots yet failed to score in back-to-back league games for the first time since March 2016. Bergwijn was almost overcome in celebrating a goal he will never forget. Davinson Sanchez hit his own crossbar with an injury-time header.
So what? This was VAR's time to shine.