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Red cards leave bad taste in mouth

Champions League Wednesday Recap
Champions League Wednesday Recap
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.



If there is a single takeaway from this set of UEFA Champions League games, it is that March 1 cannot come soon enough.

That is the date that the International Football Association Board will review the so-called “triple punishment” scenario: when a player receives a red card, concedes a penalty and is suspended to boot. It is time for this rule to be consigned to the trash.

Two matches this week, both involving English teams, were hit hard by this rule, and there can be no disagreement about the ultimate results of the games, there is a strong argument to be made that the rule destroys the spectacle of the matches.

Tuesday night saw Manchester City’s Martin Demichelis sent off for a last-man foul on Barcelona's Lionel Messi on the edge of the area. The referee, Jonas Eriksson, was correct to award the penalty as Messi’s momentum carried him into the area. But was he also correct to send Demichelis off? It did deny a goal-scoring opportunity -- but a penalty also is a goal-scoring opportunity.

Wednesday night saw an even shakier case, with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny sent off for mistiming his tackle on Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben. The ball looked as if it was going away from Robben when the keeper clattered into him -- and there can be no denying it was a penalty. But was it also a sending-off?

In both cases, the result was the same: what had been tense, compelling games full of entertainment for the fans descended into training ground exercises. And that’s hardly good for what is supposed to be the highest level of the game.


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The decisions so enraged Manuel Pellegrini on Tuesday that he lost his cool, claiming that the Swedish referee had it in for his team and that he has been partial towards Barcelona. It was an extraordinary outburst that is likely to see him sanctioned by UEFA, but the fact that his comments were wildly off the mark should not conceal his frustration.

Arsene Wenger was far more politic on Wednesday night, if equally as downbeat.

"Unfortunately, the sending off completely changed the game, it killed the game," said Wenger. "In the first half, the game was top quality, in the second half, for neutral people it was boring, just one-way traffic. The referee made a decision that killed the game…. I just feel frustrated. It was a great game until halftime and then not at all after. That’s with a neutral eye."

Josep Guardiola agreed with him, to a point, saying: "Arsenal were much, much, much better than us for the first 20 minutes. After the red card for their goalkeeper it was another game. But, when [Szczesny] is the last man then the referee says penalty and red card."

There’s the rub. It should be one or the other, and not both.

In both cases, players paid the ultimate penalty for mistakes. Demichelis’ foul might have been the more cynical of the two, but an experienced defender of his age certainly knows it is unwise to hack a player down in the box. Given his lack of speed, that foul looked clumsier than malicious. Stupid? Yes. But dangerous? No, not at all.

In Szczesny’s case, it was obvious that his foul was due to mistiming his tackle. He was caught between thoughts and brushed into Robben. None of the players this week disagreed with a sanction for the foul -- Per Mertesacker said quite directly that it was a penalty -- but a red card on top of that seems more than harsh.


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That’s not just for the teams, but the fans as well. Wenger is correct that close to an hour of Wednesday’s match was pretty uninteresting. The same was true of Tuesday’s encounter in Manchester. No one should argue with the results -- Bayern and Barcelona are superior by anyone’s reckoning -- but how they achieved them leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Soccer will also be discussing other "reforms" -- so-called "sin bins", which have been in hockey for over a hundred years; and video replay, which the NFL has used since 1986, are also on the docket. Cutting edge as these are for this hidebound sport, it would be wise to dump the comparatively new 'triple punishment.' Since its introduction, it has done little to stop players from making cynical fouls -- but it has ruined a number of good games.

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