Manchester City rescued a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday, but there was VAR controversy over the equalising goal.

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Possible ball out of play on De Bruyne goal

What happened: Manchester City equalised in the 67th minute when Kevin De Bruyne brilliantly fired into the net from the edge of the area, but Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and several players were adamant that Bernardo Silva had failed to keep the ball in play just before, and that the goal should have been disallowed by the VAR.

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: A graphic shared widely on social media, and referenced by Ancelotti, has taken much of the attention — but all is not what it seems. ESPN sources have confirmed that goal was allowed to stand because the attacking phase of play (APP) was reset when Eduardo Camavinga gave the ball away with a poor pass under no pressure after the ball may have gone out of play. Anything before that pass isn’t valid for a review.

Comments from Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s head of global football, were widely reported.

“The VAR normally should check if the goal is regular or not. In a situation like that they have to intervene,” Wenger said on beINSPORTS. “They did not go far enough back to check if the ball was out or not.”

Did not go far enough back, or shouldn’t go further back? There are key parts to the VAR protocol.

An APP ends when:
– the defending team gain “controlled possession” of the ball i.e. when a defending team player:
— “clears” the ball without being under any pressure
— clearly controls and moves with or passes the ball

For the purposes of defining the start of the next APP, the attacking team (Man City) can gain possession of the ball:
– when it is “lost” by the opponents (e.g. poor pass, clearance etc.)

Shortly after the throw-in, De Bruyne lost the ball to Camavinga, who then had controlled possession and the option to pick out on easy pass. The France international simply played a poor pass into a central area that failed to reach his teammate. It was intercepted by Rodri and this eventually led to De Bruyne scoring the goal. It’s very clear evidence the APP has been reset and the VAR should not review prior to Camavinga needlessly giving the ball away.

But what of the image that was shared to prove the ball was out?

“It was out. It’s not me saying it; the technology does,” Ancelotti said in his postmatch news conference. “It surprises me. They’re small details, but the referee wasn’t attentive.”

The image was from a graphical model created by television broadcaster beINSPORTS, shown on its Champions League coverage. It isn’t approved for use or available to the VAR, and there is no specific technology to check the ball going out of play on the sideline. No one can be truly certain the ball went out of play, yet the TV graphic was presented as fact while the assistant was very close with a clear view.

Wenger also added: “Or they did not have the potential to check if the ball was out or not. I think I would go for [this option] because normally the VAR cannot check on the side-line, only on the goal-line.”

While the attacking phase was deciding factor for the VAR in this case, he only has the host broadcast cameras to make a decision on the ball being out of play. This can be useful with cameras which look along the goal-line, but there is no camera which looks up the touchline. Goal-line technology requires seven cameras just to monitor the small area within the goal, so being able to monitor all the outer areas of the pitch, especially when the ball could go out of play at any height, isn’t realistic.

Wenger was mistaken when he said “but we have a chip in the ball now, and with a chip in the ball you can check.”

How UEFA’s technology differs from FIFA’s

The system used by FIFA at the World Cup did indeed have a chip to detect when the ball has been kicked or touched, but the UEFA technology doesn’t. Even if the ball did have a chip, this cannot be used to make a decision on the ball being out of play. The chip was able to prove conclusively that Cristiano Ronaldo did not make any contact with the ball for Portugal‘s opener in their 2-0 win over Uruguay. But when Japan scored their winning goal against Spain, and there was a question of the ball going out behind the goal-line, the VAR couldn’t use FIFA’s kick-point technology, he had to rely on the goal-line cameras.

Real Madrid may feel aggrieved, and you can understand why they would make something out of it. However, the attacking phase had reset, and there is no technology to check the ball position — only the broadcast cameras. Again, this kind of situation would be quickly resolved if FIFA allowed all competitions to share the audio of VAR discussions during matches, though UEFA is quite protective so would likely opt against doing so.

Los Blancos suffered a similar fate in the 2018-19 season when they were knocked out in the round of 16 at the Bernabeu by Ajax. The VAR had no conclusive evidence that Noussair Mazraoui failed to keep the ball in play prior to Dusan Tadic‘s goal, so didn’t intervene to disallow it.

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The VAR Review: Why Kevin De Bruyne’s goal wasn’t disallowed