It has been an astonishing weekend. A record number of goals in the Premiership, an unwanted record that will make Monday morning horrendous for many of us, and yet the end result hasn’t been the disaster it could have been. How you feel about the current situation says a lot about how optimistic or otherwise you are, and you really could go either way:
Glass half empty
We’ve just become the first team in Premiership history to blow a four goal lead, and we’ve done it against newly promoted opposition that have just lost their main source of goals. We’ve shown the same mental fragility that allowed prior collapses against Wigan and Spurs, amongst others, and the panic when Newcastle got back to 4-1 indicated a side unable to close out a match that should have been buried. Djourou’s injury exposes our lack of depth at centre back, and the Koscielny/Squillaci pairing that has been shaky at best may be required for a crucial period.
Glass half full
Our first half showing was stunning, blowing Newcastle away with an attacking flair that no side in the league can match. And despite the shocking second half, we gained a point on United, who were dreadful against the league’s basement club, and Chelsea, who are now six points behind us after Liverpool completed the double over them. Our improved defensive record in 2011 (five clean sheets in January) suggests that yesterday was a freakish blip, and we remain unbeaten in the league since Old Trafford in December. Van Persie is fit and firing.
Where do I stand? Regular readers of the blog can probably guess, but I’m firmly in the latter camp, albeit with two caveats – our lack of depth at the back really concerns me, and the extent of Djourou’s injury could be critical, and it is also vital that we do not allow this to destroy confidence. If the players get angry and take it out on Wolves next week, I’ll have no worries on that front, whereas if we see a cagey frightened team, it could derail the whole campaign.
But overall, I remain optimistic. I know there are plenty that think otherwise, but if you listen to the fanbase of our rivals, you’ll hear just as many “We can’t win the league because….” comments as you do from our fans. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is one of the biggest falsehoods that you have to be perfect to win titles. United have been poor for large parts of this season and have finally picked up their long overdue loss, while Chelsea have seven defeats on their record. Every title contender has serious flaws, us included. That does not preclude us from lifting the title – someone has to.
As for the match itself, it is difficult to know where to begin. The first half was extraordinarily good, to the point where Newcastle fans were leaving after half an hour, after some truly abysmal defending allowed Van Persie to head us into a four goal lead. The home side were getting torn apart at will, and the only question appeared to be how close to double figures we’d get. But hope was given to Newcastle in the opening moments of the second half, with Djourou’s injury quickly followed by Diaby’s red card. I have a bone of contention with Phil Dowd on that particular decision, which I’ll come back to shortly.
Two soft penalties (the second of which was not just soft, but entirely invented), one close range finish and one wonder strike later, and the record books were being rewritten. At five o’clock, I was sitting in front of a television ahead of a good mate’s 30th birthday celebration in utter disbelief. The fact that a Spurs fan was chuckling his head off hardly helped. But two hours later the gap to United remained at four points after they lost at Wolves. before Chelsea failed to make ground on us today. It felt like an awful weekend, but strangely it wasn’t. Or if it was, it could have been a whole lot worse.
I do want to touch on the referee though. Not for the penalties, nor for fouls he missed or playacting he bought, because referees make mistakes. I don’t have a problem with that – managers and players make mistakes and it always feels churlish to pin the blame on the official every time. I do, however, have an issue when the referee clearly sees an incident but incorrectly applies the rules – that for me is a whole new level of incompetence.
If Phil Dowd considered Diaby’s push on Barton to be violent conduct, then I would disagree strongly, but as I said before, understand the mistake, because a mistake is all it would be. But Dowd clearly indicates a “1-2” reasoning for the red card, that the two pushes on Barton and Nolan were worthy of a yellow card each, therefore justifying the combining of the offences into a sending off. I’ve watched the footage a number of times and can think of no other conclusion – the “1-2” action is produced as an explanation when asked why the red was produced.
That is truly abysmal refereeing. I’ve mentioned before on the blog that one of the rules of football is that you cannot be yellow carded twice in one incident, irrespective of whether you have committed two, six or twenty offences worthy of a card before the referee brandishes it. The reasoning is simple – a yellow card is a warning as to a player’s future conduct, and the second yellow is produced if the player fails to heed that warning. You cannot fail to heed a warning you have not yet received, hence the rule. But Dowd clearly combines the two offences into a sending off (which, incidentally, carries a three game ban, not the single game you’d get for two yellows), which is a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of the game. Later, Nolan did the same thing to Szczesny and picked up a booking of his own, further evidence that the referee considered pushes as yellow card offences, not red.
I would love to hear his explanation, particularly given the visual indications of his reasoning. But of course it will not happen.
The worrying thing is that this is not an isolated incident. On Tuesday night, the officials knew that Saha was in an offside position, but applied the rules incorrectly and allowed the goal. And as I was reminded by LucaHelvetica on Twitter, Mark Halsey stopped the game against Ipswich when the ball hit him, restarting with a drop ball. He did so because playing on would have put us in a good position, but he should know that officials are active parts of the field, and therefore the game should not have been stopped. Again, it was not a case of the referee reading a situation wrongly (which can happen to anyone), but reading it correctly and ignoring the actual rules of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the referee for yesterday’s collapse. He certainly gave Newcastle a considerable helping hand, but it should not have been enough – we still collapsed in spectacular fashion. My point is merely one of concern at the standard of officiating this season.
We have our own concerns though. Tomorrow we should hear more about the extent of Djourou’s knee problem. It is a measure of how impressive he has been that the results could be crucial. Fingers crossed.
Oh, and I recommend earplugs at work tomorrow.