Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.