Monday, March 24, 2008

Premiership Weekend Roundup: March 22-23

Manchester United 3-0 Liverpool
A lot of people are blaming Javier Mascherano for Liverpool losing. A few people are blaming the referee. I'm going to do something a bit different and blame both of them.

Let's start with Mascherano. He's booked early on for a late tackle on Paul Scholes, although he's deliberately put his feet flat on the ground -- no high foot, no studs showing -- so it's maybe a bit harsh. Somewhat aggrieved by that, he spends a good portion of the first half yammering away at Steve Bennett. Then, just before halftime, Fernando Torres is booked for what I presume was dissent -- it wasn't particularly clear -- Mascherano makes the unnecessary and foolhardy decision to question this, and he's booked a second time, again for dissent. Now, I'm not going to argue that he isn't an idiot for getting involved. (And he didn't help his case by the way he reacted.) But I think the referee has to share some of the responsibility.

Leaving aside the first yellow card for Mascherano -- because I do think that could have gone either way -- let's look at the way Bennett handled the situation. There's been a lot of discussion this week about whether referees deserve more respect from the players, and I think generally they do. But the other side of that is that the players are also entitled to respect from the referees. I don't mean turning a blind eye when players whine about every call. I mean simply responding to players instead of stonewalling them.

Let's say the referee awards a free kick and a player asks, "What was that for?" There are two ways you can take that. One is that they're disputing the referee's decision. The other is that they're just not sure what the infringement is, and they want to know. Most of the time it's probably the first, but not always -- and when referees assume that it's always the player trying to argue, and as a result they get all defensive and refuse to answer, it just causes more problems.

Look at this game, specifically: Torres is booked for whatever comment he made. Then Mascherano comes over to ask what happened, and he's booked as well. As I said, it's a foolish thing for him to do, but I think it's reasonable to expect that you should be able to ask a question without getting sent off for it. There's certainly too many instances of dissent in the game today, and not enough of them are being punished, but there is also a difference between dissent and simply making a comment -- or at least there should be.

The FA is probably going to come down hard on Mascherano for not leaving the field immediately after being sent off. And I think that's harsh -- I can't really blame him for reacting incredulously to the second booking -- but I'm sure they're determined to make an example of him. Which is going to cripple Liverpool's midfield for the next few games, incidentally.

The real shame, though, is that the sending off pretty much ended this as a game. And regardless of whether I wanted United to win, I didn't want them to win like this. Unitd had already taken the lead in the 34th minute with an unlikely goalscorer, Wes Brown heading home from a corner, and were looking like the better team even before their opponents were reduced to 10 men. Liverpool did put a decent spell together in the second half, but they never really tested Edwin van der Sar, and it was only a matter of time before United scored again.

Wayne Rooney had been breaking through the defence too easily all game, and really should have scored at least once. Instead it was Cristiano Ronaldo with the second goal -- another header that Pepe Reina came to punch and missed, negating the good saves he'd made earlier in the game. Nani added a third just a couple minutes later, cutting inside and unleashing a scorching shot. By that point Liverpool looked like they just wanted it all to be over, while United were relishing the thought of moving six points clear of Arsenal at the top of the table.

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
The two teams were evenly matched for almost an hour (including the two least likeably players in the Premiership facing up against each other, with Emmanuel Eboue versus Ashley Cole) before Arsenal took the lead. As with United v. Liverpool, it was another unlikely goal from a right back, Bacary Sagna scoring from a corner when he probably shouldn't have been anywhere near the box. But unfortunately for Arsenal, the game proved to be a microcosm of their season, as they then surrendered the lead to a resurgent Chelsea -- who have now leapfrogged them into second place in the league.

Avram Grant's substitutions -- Juliano Belletti and Nicolas Anelka for Claude Makelele and Michael Ballack -- were criticized by the Chelsea fans but appeared to have an effect, as both players they were involved in the winning goal. (Neither of the players who were taken off looked particularly happy about it, by the way, with a scowling Ballack heading straight down the tunnel.) But the changes were hardly revolutionary, and in any case it was Didier Drogba who was really the difference between the teams here. He'd been hobbling earlier in the game and looked like he might come off, but shook it off and led his team brilliantly, ultimately scoring both their goals. I still don't like him, but he is a very good striker when he wants to be.

Other results
Aston Villa 0-1 Sunderland
Blackburn 3-1 Wigan
Bolton 0-0 Manchester City
Everton 1-1 West Ham
Middlesbrough 1-0 Derby
Newcastle 2-0 Fulham
Reading 2-1 Birmingham
Tottenham 2-0 Portsmouth


carlo said...

I don't know if you saw this, but Bennett got called out publicly by his boss in the Telegraph for his lack of action (as fourth official) on the Ashley Cole tackle/reaction last week.

I'd imagine that went a long way towards pre-determining how he'd act on Sunday. Not saying that he had it in for Masch from the outset, but rather that he felt he needed to be seen as strong or whatever, so when the opportunity arose, he took it. Bennett played a part in creating this situation by failing to do anything (in concert with Mike Riley) on Wednesday. Masch was the enabler, but most of this is down to Bennett.

Still, it's hard to find fault with the sending off, as Masch deserved it IMO. Perhaps not for asking the ref to explain the Torres foul, but for his behavior up to that point. After his yellow card -- which was really harsh -- he could be seen yelling "fuck off" at the ref again and again, which is hardly a way to get in the good books. I was a little surprised he didn't get a second yellow right then, actually.

It was also pretty predictable that he was going to get himself sent off, and Benitez should have recognized this and subbed him. Perhaps he would have made the change at the half, but I doubt it. I don't want to get into Benitez' domestic shortcomings here though :)

The bigger issue for me is inconsistency. Did Masch deserve to go? Yeah, he probably did. But how many times have you seen the entire Chelsea side harangue the ref and escape unpunished? Rooney? Ronaldo? Cole's display on Wednesday really didn't seem out of the ordinary at all for him or his team. They seem to carry an arrogance that says they're beyond reproach, even for a foul as blatant as Cole's horror show on Hutton.

carlo said...

Also, Bennett's fortunate the Masch incident is drawing most of the attention attention away from the rest of his poor performance.

Jen said...

I hadn't seen that article, but I'm sure it was a factor. I also think that Bennett tends to be one of the referees who's most resistant to having his authority questioned.

I did see Mascherano shouting "fuck off" after his first booking, and yeah, I'm surprised there wasn't more of a reaction to that. Maybe if the referee had said something to him -- or to Gerrard -- and warned him to calm down or he'd be booked the next time he said something. Someone certainly needed to step in. I still don't think that whatever Mascherano said right before Bennett booked him looked all that inflammatory, but he was pretty riled up, so it was probably only a matter of time anyway.

I agree with you that inconsistency is the bigger issue. You see some refs who let players get away with too much, and others who smack you down if you so much as open your mouth. I think they need clear guidelines about what's acceptable behaviour from players (yes, I know that "dissent" and "foul or abusive language" are in the rules already, but it wouldn't hurt to spell it out again), and then the refs need to enforce that consistently.

In the Mascherano case, I think they've gone too far to one side, in an overreaction to the incident with Ashley Cole next weekend -- and I expect that it'll die down pretty soon and just go back to the status quo. Which makes this whol kerfuffle pointless, because they're (the referees, the FA, whoever) not actually going to do anything to make things better in the future.