February 18, 2010

Paying the penalty

Posted by Jon Champion on 18/02/2010

Executives in television land love nothing more than to boast that "the action comes thick and fast – and it's live on...(insert relevant channel)". This weekend, they may just be right.

Tom Huddlestone's failure to convert a penalty in Tottenham's FA Cup 5th round tie at the Reebok condemned Bolton and Spurs to a replay and led to Monday night's Lancashire derby at Blackburn becoming an h'or d'oeuvre to Sunday lunch.

Even at World Cups – where the group stages are relentless – I don't think I can recall commentating on two games quite as close together as ESPN's upcoming live offerings from the Barclays Premier League.

That's close, by the way, in terms of time not distance. A quick glance at the RAC routefinder uncovered the joyless statistic that Fratton Park to Ewood Park by road is a trip of 281 miles. The predicted journey time of 5 hours and 11 minutes doesn't allow for the fact that a section of the M6 is being closed on Saturday night. As for average speed cameras, don't get me started on them!

Not that I am moaning. The logistics are a challenge not a chore, and as we approach the business end of the League season, there is plenty to recommend both games.

By way of preparation, I motored down to Portsmouth last week to watch Pompey play Sunderland. I wasn't expecting a classic, but after 3 red cards – one of them initially delivered to the wrong player, the dismissal of an angry Avram Grant, plus a series of other contentious incidents, I was clearly wrong.

There was enough spirit in the Pompey team to suggest they'll be awkward opponents for Stoke, albeit the Potters are still unbeaten in 2010. There is a siege mentality at Fratton, in the midst of which Grant has become an unlikely folk-hero. I have never seen him as animated as during that Sunderland game. Portsmouth fans must feel the whole world is against them right now with March 1st the next D-day at the High Court, so a defiant manager has become a rallying symbol.

The men in the dugouts will also hog the attention at Ewood on Sunday. Sam Allardyce was the man who established Bolton as a Premier League force yet now guides local rivals Blackburn. His successors at the Reebok have struggled to emulate him, yet Owen Coyle clearly feels Bolton are a better vehicle for his managerial ambitions than Burnley.

The road that links the two towns, winding its way across the West Pennine Moors and on through Darwen, wouldn't have been called the A666 when these founder members of the Football League first met in an FA Cup tie in 1881, but it'll be just as busy on Sunday morning as supporters make their way to the 156th engagement between the teams.

And seeing as that penalty save by Jussi Jasskelainen from Huddlestone is the reason for the strange kick-off time, it's worth pointing out that in Bolton's last three visits to Blackburn they've conceded five penalties of which Jaaskelainen has saved a superb three of them.

This Lancashire dust-up is one that rarely passes without incident. It's recent history is littered with late goals, red cards and an infamous dive by El-Hadji Diouf that earned a penalty when he was playing for Bolton at Ewood in this fixture five years ago. The Senegalese took the kick, saw it saved, but scored the winner from the rebound. The fact he's now playing for Blackburn merely adds spice to a lunchtime Lancashire hot-pot.

Ref justice

Posted by Dave Roberts on 18/02/2010

The UEFA Champions League is supposed to be the best club competition of the world, containing the best clubs on the globe, administrated by the strongest of all confederations - so how on earth do we continue to see refereeing controversies that would embarrass those with a whistle on a Sunday morning?

Centre stage yet again was Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo. The nemesis of Chelsea in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona last year, he'll now not be getting any Christmas cards from Munich or Florence this December either.

Okay, he was let down very badly by an assistant who desperately needs a trip to Specsavers. Miroslav Klose's winning goal was so far offside to allow it was as near slapstick as you'll get on the field. To be honest my sides are still hurting. Perhaps the liner thought Klose was a ballboy he was so far away from other players, who knows.

Then there was Massimo Gobbi's sending off. Ovrebo again let down. TV replays clearly showing the radio-link white hot with instruction from the assistant for the ref to pull out a red one. The challenge was bad; the arm was high but not thrown nor violent, surely yellow at best.

But of the man himself, how can a one who's refereed approaching 250 games at the top level explain away chalking off a Gomez goal to whistle for a penalty? That's the hasty mistake of an excitable sixteen year old in his first half dozen games, not the supposed cool-headed, composed and controlled officiating of a FIFA man.

We're coached from an early refereeing age to read the game, anticipate what is around you, and, in the modern era, "count to three" as you can always pull play back if the advantage does not accrue. May I ask what bigger advantage is there than a goal being scored by the offended side? Fortunately for Tom Henning, Robben dispatched the kick to save major blushes.

Despite being shortlisted, Ovrebo was not on the final ten European names for South Africa, might we respectfully suggest he's not on UEFA's list next season. Norway must have better. One man who will be at FIFA's grand finale in June is Swede Martin Hansson, he of Thierry Henry handball fame and Ireland's best friend, not! He too grabbed unwelcome attention on Wednesday evening.

Now let me immediately state, technically there was nothing wrong with Falcao's winner. I thought Sol Campbell's ball back to Lukasz Fabianski constituted a "back pass", or "ball played deliberately which the goalkeeper picks up" as it is taught in refereeing circles. Also, Porto were quite within their rights to take it quickly.

My gripe is Hansson serving Porto the quick free kick on a silver-plated platter (we don't do gold in Middlesbrough). Yes, it was a free-kick. Yes, the attacking team can take it quick if they so wish, however for an official to gift a team an almost open goal by running to the keeper to collect the ball, then instantly dropping it to the ground whilst blocking the attempts of a defender to get into a defending position, the referee has clearly assisted the goal being scored.

Hansson is extremely experienced, yes, the call was correct, however he's forgotten one important factor in the professional game – the "Spirit of the Law". He should have taken more time and made certain he personally wasn't going to become an obstacle in what is without doubt the most critical area of the field of play. He didn't, he did, and it had a huge effect on the outcome of the match.

So what can be done? UEFA have a referees department who appoint and like all other confederations they have match delegates and referee observers. This structure obviously hasn't worked so far. Perhaps it is time for the UEFA refereeing department to travel consistently to domestic games on their patch, then they can see their guys in action with their own eyes in domestic competition as well as when they are on confederation business.

How about a bit of Champions League cash being invested into getting the officials together for regular training sessions where UEFA can hammer home what they expect of their officials, and perhaps they can detail a level of punishment to be expected should standards slip. Harsh though it may sound, but for once I will accept (and we refs are told this at every level), with the amount of money coming from the Champions League, critical mistakes at this level cost jobs and livelihoods.

Referees are no longer amateurs; perhaps they don't receive fantastic salaries in comparison to players. However, to be a top-flight referee today you must approach the art in a professional manner. I fully accept no referee makes mistakes deliberately, but that is no defence for not at least striving for perfection.

I don't understand the walls of silence that surround refereeing. I would be proud to lead a refs' department at a confederation or association that knows it is doing everything possible to better the best officials in its remit. To stand and admit to its member's error but know you have the determination and passion to correct it through education and training, and, when necessary be prepared to punish and make tough decisions. Why doesn't this happen now?

Dave Roberts presents ESPN Soccernet Sportscenter and is a former international referee.

February 5, 2010

Chelsea had the Blues on Saturday

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 05/02/2010

I covered Chelsea’s game against Burnley last Saturday in the immediate aftermath of the John Terry scandal breaking and I have never seen an atmosphere like that in the build-up to a game.

Continue reading "Chelsea had the Blues on Saturday"

February 4, 2010

Rejuvenated rivals clash at White Hart Lane

Posted by Jon Champion on 04/02/2010

This Saturday, ESPN offers a teatime appointment with two of the teams intent on breaking into the top four. Tottenham against Aston Villa promises to deliver everything that our last live game, Sunderland versus Stoke, sadly failed to.

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