Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Clattered! Blues see red as ref leaves his Mark - Weekend Observations: 27th-28th October 2012

Match of the weekend
After an epic 3-3 draw last season, Manchester United and Chelsea renewed pleasantries at Stamford Bridge in a match that will, for better or for worse, leave a permanent imprint – or perhaps stain – on this, or perhaps any season of the Premier League. The two sides, supporters and officials did their damnedest to squeeze as much incident as was humanly possible into the time allocated between kick off and full time.

The visitors closed the gap on their hosts at the top of the table to just one point with a dramatic 3-2 win - a scoreline Sir Alex's men seems to have trademarked this season. Having previously netted five times in his only two previous appearances at Chelsea while playing for Arsenal, Robin van Persie again proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of the West Londoners as his 3rd minute shot cannoned off the post and into David Luiz who was helpless as the ball bounced off him and into net. The Dutch striker doubled the lead not long after and the reds, arguably for the first time this season, looked in total control.

The much talked about Chelsea midfield Ménage à trois of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar was left frustrated as United were fairly comfortable with anything that was thrown in their direction. Anything that did sneak through was dealt with by David De Gea.

That was until just a few minutes before half time. Frustrated having ceded possession to the abovementioned Hazard, Wayne Rooney showed all the intelligence of a brain-damaged polar bear on a mushroom trip as he stupidly hacked down the tricky Belgian on the edge of the penalty area. This provided an invitation for the superb Mata to curl a wonderful free kick round the United wall and past De Gea to halve the deficit.

United’s defence has been under incredible scrutiny so far this term due to their basic inability to... well, defend. Just two clean sheets in the preceeding 8 league games tells its own story and while initially things seemed to be going to plan, the concession of the first Chelsea goal on Sunday seemed to be a signal to abandon any sense of discipline. An equaliser seemed inevitable and less than 10 minutes into the second half, Ramieres provided it with close range header from an Oscar cross.

The stage was set for a grand stand finale. Would United respond or implode? Could Chelsea push on for the win? The answers we sought to these questions were indeed provided. Unfortunately, they came less through the influence of either team on the pitch than they did from the officials. With half an hour remaining, Branislav Ivanovic was rightly sent off for clipping Ashley Young and denying him a clear goal scoring opportunity. The home side’s task instantly became more difficult but was made damn near impossible just five minutes later following Mark Clattenburg’s inexplicable decision to issue Fernando Torres with a second yellow card for a perceived dive when the Spaniard had clearly been fouled by Johnny Evans.

Having already been reduced to 10 men, it’s difficult to say whether the European Champions would have got anything from the game. However, they would certainly have at least had something of a fighting chance with Torres on the pitch. The second red card didn't so much hand United the initiative insofar as it was presented to them on a silver platter.

Over the past two decades, be it rightly or wrongly, football fans have always believed Manchester United to regularly be on the receiving end of favourable decisions from referees. 'Fergie time' has become an accepted part of the football lexicon and the general reaction from away fans upon the Reds being rewarded a penalty at Old Trafford, deserved or not, is simply an eyeroll, a tut and a mutter of the word 'typical'.

There’s obviously no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any sort of influence/pressure on officials exists but the frequency with which we find ourselves discussing these incidents undoubtedly allows paranoia to grow and people to fuel their suspicions.

Although on this particular on this occasion, many would simply draw the conclusion that the man in the middle, despite supposedly being among the best in the world, is, to put it as kindly as possible, prone to the odd glaring error rather then being biased. You'd be hard pressed to find a fan of any club who couldn't provide an example of a Clattenburg clanger that has hurt their team. United supporters themselves have been quick to point out that Torres might have walked earlier when his clumsy high kick on Tom Cleverly only received a yellow. Was Clattenberg merely 'correcting' his earlier faux pas? It's more likely the case he just made two equally bad decisions.

So is he corrupt or just incompetent? Neither description paints a particularly pretty picture of the Durham official.

To make matters worse, the reds sealed a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to a goal from Javier Hernandez that was so blatantly offside, the Mexican may as well have been in another time zone (Mexico's, for example). The assistant’s failure to spot this just punctuated what turned out to be a rather dismal weekend for top flight officials. A similar goal was wrongly allowed to stand at the Emirates as Arsenal beat QPR 1-0 while in the Merseyside derby, the odious Luis Suarez was wrongly adjudged to be in an offside position as he scored Liverpool’s last gasp would-be winner against their city rivals. Two points were cruelly snatched away from Brendan Rodgers’ side as the game finished 2-2.

The tragedy of all these talking points is that a brilliant game of football has gone largely unnoticed. One of reasons the title slipped from United's grasp last season was their reluctance to "go for it" in away games against rivals. The meek surrender at Eastlands being the prime and ultimately most costly example. Lessons seemed to have been learned as they dominated the opening exchanges here and were duly rewarded. However, while defensive problems remain, the cavalier approach is always going to be a risk hence the reason this turned out to be the fifth 3-2 result (as well as a 4-2 against Stoke) they've been involved in this season with less than a quarter of the campaign gone.

Despite the loss, many people will still have Chelsea down as favourites for the title this year. Like United, problems are evident in defence but the collective firepower in attack will be enough to overwhelm most teams. Having fought back from 2-0 down, I don't think there are many that would argue that if it remained 11 v 11, they would more than likely have won the game. Still sitting pretty at the top of the league, the loss is unlikely to have any lasting effects.

Racist allegation of the Weekend
Curiously, the erroneously awarded red card and winning goal were not even the most controversial incidents at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Classy, cuddly bunch that they are, the Chelsea faithful, from first minute to last, insisted on jeering and abusing Rio Ferdinand for having the gall to be related to someone who was racially abused by their captain. These fans continued to cover themselves in glory as they decided to shower the United players with coins as they celebrated Hernandez' goal. You can't even afford them the excuse of the goal being offside to fuel their indignation given that very few of them would have been aware at that particular moment that the goal shouldn't have been allowed to stand. In the same incident, some supporters felt it necessary to take out their frustrations on a steward, causing him an injury that required hospital treatment. Any sympathy for them having seen their side robbed by the referee took very little time to disappear.

Somehow even this was pushed into the shade when, in the aftermath, the club filed an official complaint to the FA about the controversial Clattenburg, citing the use of "inappropriate language" directed at two of their players during the game. While the irony of Chelsea Football Club having the audacity to accuse anyone else of this offence is lost on absolutely no-one, the seriousness of the claim should not be ignored. Especially given that fevered speculation has suggested the official racially abused Jon Obi Mikel as well as insulting another Blue.

The allegation casts yet another dark cloud over the game. As we finally shut the door on one race saga, another swiftly decides to show up on your front porch uninvited (presumably wearing a white sheet and burning a cross on your lawn as well).

It would be remiss to speculate while investigation is ongoing but Chelsea would have to be pretty certain about what supposedly took place in order to pursue this complaint. Then again, surely Clattenburg cannot be THAT stupid to make such comments, particularly in the current climate when football's problems with race are such a hot topic. On one hand, you could potentially have one of the FA's top referees potentially guilty of racism which would prove nothing short of a disaster for the already battered integrity of the sport. While on the flipside, Clattenburg clearing his name would quite simply confirm that Chelsea football club, from the very top down, are untrustworthy liars making an extremely misguided attempt to deflect their recent troubles onto someone else. This is literally the last thing their reputation needs on top of everything else.

While we all hope this is resolved sooner rather than later, it can be probably be agreed that there will be no outcome in this case would be 'good' news.

Player of the weekend
Few (none?) particularly outstanding performances so I'm just going to give it to Frank Lampard... or Scott Parker.

Save of the weekend
It would be easy to wheel out the 'silenced his critics' line that often accompanies David De Gea's now regularly impressive performances but it would ultimately prove pointless given that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't now recognise his obvious talent. If any doubters remain, an incredible reflex clawed stop from a Fernando Torres in the first half of Sunday's match should make them sit up and take note.

Goal of the weekend
But for the events at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, the 3-3 ding dong played out at the Madjeski between Reading and Fulham would have been the standout game of the weekend. An end to end slugfest that couldn't produce a winner but had no trouble producing a number of great goals. Mikele Leigertwood's fantastic opener for the Royals and Dimitar Berbatov's late strike stood out in themselves but both were bettered by Bryan Ruiz' wonderful rifled drive which swerved its way between two defenders and managed to dip just under the crossbar leaving Alex McCarthy in the Reading goal stunned.

Dive of the weekend
The merseyside derby, and all the attention prematch was predictably on Luis Suarez and his frequent forays to get better acquainted with the turf despite never actually being fouled. David Moyes had made some damning comments beforehand but he hadn't reckoned on his own captain being the culprit on the day. Anticipating a non-existent challenge from Daniel Agger, Phil Neville went down faster than a drunken reveller falling out of Alma De Cuba on a typical night out in the Liverpool city centre. The most amusing thing was the fact that the former United man was quite clearly not experienced enough in the dark arts to execute even a remotely convincing dive and just ended up looking daft.

In fairness, he fronted up to the cameras afterwards and admitted his act of folly. Such was the embarrassing way he failed to pull off the manoeuvre, it's probably safe to say he won't be attempting any Suarez impressions again any time soon.

Ballsiest moment of the weekend
Speaking of whom, the dislikable Uruguayan put in a typically eventful headline-grabbing display scoring Liverpool's second, escaping a red card for a disgusting stamp on Sylvain Distin and as mentioned above, scoring a legitimate goal that was wrongly disallowed. Before all that however, having set up his side's opener (which went in via Leighton Baines) Suarez took it upon himself to celebrate by sprinting up to the Everton bench and, yep, DIVED at the feet of David Moyes. The Everton manager took it in good spirits but most people would generally know better than to attempt to wind up the firey Glaswegian who could only be technically described as 'Fucking nails'. In a Premier League battle royale, few would look further than Moyes as a potential victor so in that sense, credit must go to Suarez. He might act like a complete pussy at times but he clearly has balls made of solid steel.

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