There’s a bit of whataboutery going on this morning. Juventus lost on a last minute penalty to Real Madrid and all hell has broken loose among fans, reporters, managers, and players. The whole football world disagrees about the call and it’s great fun.
I was rooting for Juventus yesterday because I love an underdog story. Not that Juventus were plucky little upstarts or anything but they were down 3-0 in the first leg, had their star striker sent off, and they were facing back-to-back Champions League winners Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Plus there’s the back story with Buffon and this being his last ever game (we’ll see if that’s still the case).
But as soon as I saw Michael Oliver point to the spot my heart sank. Even watching the replays over and over again just deepend the despair. It was a penalty and I didn’t even have the cold comfort of saying “now we know why English referees aren’t in the world cup.”
The debate around this call perfectly captures every side of football fans and their relationship to referees at the moment. I’ve heard some folks argue that Oliver was brave to make that call because it was last minute, and that he was cowardly to make that call because it was at the Bernabeu and the pressure was too much. That the stature of the game requires him NOT to make the call and just exactly the opposite! I’ve heard people say that the contact was “not enough for me” or that it was clearly a shove in the back. There are those saying Vazquez dived and those saying Benatia kicked him in the chest. Was the referee sighted? Could he see Benatia kick Vazquez? Would he have given the penalty on the other end of the pitch? Why give a penalty in the final minute of a Champions League quarter final? I think I even saw someone say that Benatia won the ball.
As I have written before the laws of the game are so open for interpretation that this call is exactly what you get. Did I say that makes it right? Would I have called that? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter what I would have done or what you think should have been called because none of us are professional referees*.
But the more difficult part for fans is that the laws of the game, and their interpretation by each individual referee, is so wildly different, that it almost seems like there are no laws. Arguing the laws is pointless. What constitutes a foul is interpretive. Even VAR won’t help. We’ve all had nearly countless hours watching replays of the foul and still none of us agree. You can’t be right and you also can’t be wrong. Catch 22.
Maybe that’s the fun part as so many pundits argue: you all get to debate whether Juventus were “robbed”, we pile more dislike on Cristiano Ronaldo, referees get more stick, Michael Oliver is now “that referee from the Real Madrid-Juventus game”. The game passes into folklore status.
The other moment that seems to have riled so many fans is Buffon’s red card. But when I was watching it looked to me like he was trying to get sent off – screaming in the face of the official, shoving him in the back – these are usually good ways to get sent off. That’s just my gut reaction and like fouls I can’t be right or wrong for having it. I do know that he had been accused of lacking “pashun” in the previous match, when he’d been spotted laughing and joking with Ronaldo after the crushing defeat. And I also know that he’s said: “How do I imagine my last ever game? Maybe I’ll go out like Zidane, headbutting someone on the pitch!” So, maybe that played a part in my gut feeling. Who knows.
If I’m generous to Buffon I think he got himself sent off so that Wojciech Szczesny could come on and save the day. A sort of passing of the torch. Szczesny was funny too. He swaggered on to the pitch, took an age to crawl up to the line, stomped on the penalty spot, and angered Ronaldo by jumping up and down and touching the crossbar. He even guessed the right way against Ronaldo, but there was no chance he was going to save that shot, it was a wicked blast into the side netting. Unstoppable.
Juventus, Roma, Man City and Liverpool also offer us some lessons to take forward as Arsenal supporters. The first is the most obvious: that a 3 goal cushion isn’t enough. Bookmaker will offer odds for the game and nearly every other type of bet that you want but when Juve tried to shut up shop and get into extra time after they scored the third goal, they invited pressure and they clearly couldn’t handle that pressure. This was a Juventus side that allowed 7 goals in their last 4 Champions League matches. Hardly the catenaccio we all expect from the Italian teams. The penalty call clearly overshadowed the fact that Juventus were weak defensively.
Arsenal are in a bit of a precarious position because despite scoring four goals, CSKA got a vital away goal and if they win 3-0 tonight, like Roma did to Barcelona, the Russian side will advance. CSKA also have a similar player to Djeko (albeit not anywhere near as good) and Mandzukic in Pontus Wernbloom and I expect to see them deploy a familiar tactic to Roma and Juventus by getting up and down Arsenal’s flanks and whipping in crosses to the far post where The Wurm can use his body to just bash in goals.
The CSKA manager has kind of called Wenger out and suggested he will get the three goals he needs saying, “Arsenal have a philosophy and have stuck to it for a long time, for many years, regardless of their record. If they are losing or winning they still play to make supporters and fans happy. When you act like this, trying to cheer up the supporters, you can have some problems in the defence.” This is so lolly.
To stop this happening, I’d love to see Arsenal play a bit cynical. Watching all the Champions League matches (plus the big matches from the Premier League) I was struck by how often teams get away with fouls to stop plays developing. What used to almost always be a yellow card – for a player fouling a man on a breakaway – now seems to be just called as a regular foul. I know it won’t happen but I’m going to wish for it anyway.
Arsenal are missing the director of flow in the midfield, Granit Xhaka, today and that does spell a bit of a problem. Arsenal’s midfield looks lost without him in there to make his exclusively left footed passes after taking two touches. Wilshere has been poor for the last two matches and doesn’t seem to have good chemistry with Elneny and Ramsey but Arsenal will need the three of them to stay close, not hide, cover for each other, and also still make runs forward into the box.
Arsenal are also missing Mkhitaryan, who I think is becoming something of an on-field leader for Arsenal. He’s one of the only players who would just cynically foul the opposition, he gets stuck in to tackles all the time, and he almost always looks to attack directly when he has the ball. Iwobi is like his polar opposite and will probably be the starter today.
Arsenal have to stay tight but also not invite too much pressure. They have to attack but not recklessly attack. They have to press CSKA and also foul when they lose the ball (which is going to be often today). Any score other than 3-0 for CSKA sees Arsenal through to the next round which is one step closer to the only prize that matters this season.
*See how utterly annoying this is. You can’t criticize me because you’re not a professional writer like me! You can’t criticize police unless you’re a professional policeman! You can’t criticize Trump because you’re not a professional…