Phil Foden, who had been the target of consitstent abuse throughout both legs, was unceremoniously chopped down by Felipe in the 89th minute, leaving the young City star in a heap on the floor. Substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko rushed to his teammate’s defense as Stefan Savic attempted to drag Foden back to his feet and the benches cleared, with subs, coaches, and players all wanting to get in on the action.
Savic remained at the center of the drama throughout the ensuing melee. He gave Raheem Sterling a piece of his mind (literally), headbutting him while the referee’s back was turned. Savic went on to get called a “c***” by Jack Grealish, responding by pulling his hair.
The drama continued in the tunnel as Savic and Grealish continued to exchange insults and Šime Vrsaljko continued to antagonize the City squad, the latest round of the fight having to be broken up by stadium police.
Unsurprisingly, the spat has drawn criticism from pundits and fans. BT commentator Darren Fletcher noted that “these are scenes we don’t want to see,” and BBC Sport’s Phil Dawkes wrote in his match report that “[i]t is a shame that the credit the home side's display deserved was largely overshadowed by their unnecessary antics.”
Unfortunately, I can’t help but disagree with this sentiment. Many a modern pundit whose playing career peaked in the 80s or 90s will tell you that “the game’s gone soft,” or that players today couldn’t hack it had they played in “the good ol’ days.”
While I disagree with this point of view in many applications, I feel that it applies in this case. A lot of modern rivalries seem to lack the venom and emotion which they did as little as ten years ago. Sunday’s Merseyside Derby was a particularly wet affair, as were most this season’s London Derbies.
Of course, fighting on pitch isn’t a good look for anyone involved, but it is impossible to deny the emotion and passion in the players. It was almost refreshing to see the emotions boil over as Felipe and Savic simply couldn’t contain their frustrations any longer.
Granted, they certainly could have contained themselves somewhat better and not allowed the situation to get so out of hand, however, I found it comforting to see how much the match meant to the players and the fact that they were prepared to put everything on the line to stay in the competition.
It goes to show the magnitude and legacy of the Champions League, the player’s passion, and a side of football that I’ve quite missed in recent years. The situation got out of hand and most fans would probably sooner see that passion manifested in other ways, but any ice hockey or rugby fan will tell you that the occasional punch-up is always appreciated.
Despite what red-faced old men at your local might tell you, this match is proof that the game has not, in fact, gone soft, something which football fans should celebrate.