IF it had not been for VAR, Raheem Sterling could have swept the board this season.
Already a domestic Treble winner with Manchester City, the man who led England out as skipper last night could have added the Champions League and the Nations League too.
5 Jesse Lingard thought he had stroked a later winner for England – but after celebrations from Gareth Southgate and Co it was ruled out by VAR
5 This wafer-thin verdict ruled out a probable winner for Jesse Lingard
As it stands, though, a second fag-paper offside decision has robbed his side of what looked like a perfectly good late winner.
First, there was the injury-time strike which would have handed Sterling a hat-trick and City a 5-4 aggregate victory over Tottenham in their epic quarter-final.
And last night, Jesse Lingard’s ‘winner’ was also struck off following rapturous celebrations, after a cunning Sterling back-heel and Jordan Henderson’s visionary pass had teed up the Manchester United man.
What a hideous passion-killer this system is.
It marred Wednesday’s first Nations League semi-final when Portugal were awarded a penalty, only to have it scrubbed off because Switzerland had a questionable spot-kick given at the opposite end from earlier in the passage of play.
This sort of nonsense is not what anyone envisaged when they hollered long and hard for technology in decision-making and ultimate justice.
This is not the correction of clear and obvious errors, it is nit-picking and is already a blight on the game.
Just as Pep Guardiola’s lengthy celebrations were cut short on that night at the Etihad in April, so was the jubilation among England’s players, supporters and staff when Lingard seemed to have completed a classy team goal and earned Southgate a sixth straight victory.
Apparently this is what you all wanted — moments of high emotion smothered by remote officials interpreting freeze-frame footage in a trailer.
England’s defeat wasn’t all about VAR, though, of course.
For a second successive summer, Southgate’s men tossed away a half-time lead and lost a semi-final.
Just like against Croatia at the World Cup they lost momentum and lost their way, allowing Matthijs De Ligt to atone for the error which gave Marcus Rashford a penalty opener by powering in a header from Daley Blind’s corner.
5 Raheem Sterling was denied by VAR with Man City before seeing Jesse Lingard and England thwarted by a late video-assistant decision
5 Raheem Sterling has seen it all before with VAR – after this crucial Champions League quarter-final goal against Spurs was disallowed after replaysCredit: AP:Associated Press
Then, after Lingard’s effort was disallowed, it was a horror show from a dawdling John Stones which allowed Memphis Depay to nip in and for Kyle Walker to net an own goal in the scramble after a fine Jordan Pickford save.
England have to cut out that sort of supreme sloppiness if they are to make the final step from contenders to trophy winners.
They really ought to have been heading to Porto to face Cristiano Ronaldo’s hosts in the final, with the chance to win a proper trophy for the first time since 1966.
This has still been a decent season for Southgate, who had been developing a fine winning habit.
We’ve had a majestic win against Spain, a ballsy comeback victory against Croatia, ruthless wins against the Czechs and Montenegro — and this should have been a scruffy, ugly triumph sealed by one sweeping team move.
Now, though, it’s a third-place play-off against the Swiss here on Sunday afternoon in a game nobody really wants to watch.
It was difficult to argue with Southgate’s decision to bench all of his Champions League finalists, but also impossible not to realise that the progression of Liverpool and Tottenham to Madrid had done him no favours.
Three of this starting line-up are not first choice at their clubs — Stones, Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley — and it was an inexperienced team for Sterling to skipper.
The Footballer of the Year’s PR men had done him no favours by leaking details of his captaincy.
And Southgate had been fuming that they’d let the cat out of the bag over the absence of captain Harry Kane and his lieutenant Jordan Henderson, both of whom later arrived as subs.
Sterling was still England’s best player, especially as they tried to force a late winner towards the end of 90 minutes — or 97 minutes thanks to VAR.
The City player has stood up against terrace abuse this season.
And the contrast between this intelligent, vibrant, diverse England team and some of the plankton who follow them abroad has never been starker.
Here, hundreds of the ‘No Surrender’ mob booed the Dutch national anthem in a characteristic display of disrespect.
At least a day of torrential rain and high winds had been exactly what the locals had been hoping for, to dampen the worst excesses of the sizeable toerag element within England’s travelling support.
The 75th anniversary of the D Day landings had been marked by a bunch of drunken morons glorifying war, then wetting their pants running from Portuguese police.
All sadly predictable. England’s charmless army have desecrated some fine cities in recent times and Guimaraes is right up there.
Southgate’s team do not deserve them as they are a decent band of men. Not quite good enough to win a trophy yet, but that may come.
Southgate was as animated as you’ve ever seen him during a huddle at half-time of extra-time.
But it was to no avail as Barkley’s blunder handed Quincy Promes a third Dutch goal.
The England boss firmly believes his team are capable of winning Euro 2020 at Wembley next summer — and, who knows, maybe technology could even do him a favour.
5 Skipper for the night Raheem Sterling fends off Marten de Roon as England suffered extra-time agony in the Nations League semi-finalsCredit: Getty – Contributor
Snipers are deployed on roof of England match with Holland in Nations League semi-final after boozy crowd trouble