FOX Soccer Exclusive
Don't change triple punishment rule
Two big games. Eagerly awaited. Each between a top Premier League club and a fellow giant of soccer from mainland Europe.
First it is Barcelona at Manchester City in the Champions League. The home team has a guy sent off – Martin Demichelis – and the artistic visitors take control, winning 2-0. Now Bayern Munich at Arsenal in the Champions League. The home team has Wojciech Szczesny sent off and – here’s a novel twist - the artistic visitors take even more emphatic control, although they also win 2-0.
Moreover, at City the grapes of wrath are sour, for coach Manuel Pellegrini loses his customary cool afterwards and accuses the Swedish referee, Jonas Eriksson, of being biased - a notion that is bound to lead to a dugout ban from UEFA.
The next night Arsene Wenger does it with a bit more dignity, but again it’s the man in the middle’s fault, for Nicola Rizzoli, according to the Arsenal coach, let himself be conned by Arjen Robben in the crucial incident involving his goalkeeper.
In neither case did the more dispassionate judges of the press have much sympathy for the Premier League side of the argument and I agreed that City and Arsenal were both beaten fair and square.
Demichelis cynically chopped down Lionel Messi, the offense continuing just the wrong side of the penalty-area borderline, and, although Szczesny understandably felt a little unlucky, Robben was in the goalmouth and would have been poised to score but for the keeper’s clumsy intervention.
So are the English – as represented by a Chilean and a Frenchman from a village near the German frontier – sore losers? And is the Premier League being exposed as a medium of wonderful entertainment – as exemplified by City’s most recent meeting with Arsenal, which ended 6-3 in their favor – but questionable substance, at least when measured against the best that Europe has to offer?
Either Barcelona or Bayern has, after all, featured in every Champions League final since 2008, Barcelona winning two and Bayern the most recent. But there had been optimism that the leading English candidates could give them a serious examination and even inflict enough damage in the home legs to suggest a change in the order of things. It didn’t happen and City, especially, got a slap in the face.
Man for man, even without Sergio Aguero, they had fancied themselves a bit but the grand old man of the European game, the little Catalan emperor known as Xavi, put it all in context. And now they return to domestic conflict with a very different assignment. Indeed I’m tempted to say that only if it were an away game at the raucous Britannia Stadium could it be more different from a tangle with Barcelona. For Pellegrini’s men are at home to Stoke.
One of the leading EPL pundits, Andy Gray, once claimed that even Messi "would struggle on a cold night at Stoke" but away from home the team now coached by Mark Hughes tend to fare as badly as any of the 20 clubs, except Cardiff, and that’s unlikely to change at the Etihad, where City will be striving to put the Barcelona nightmare behind them with one of those big wins in which they specialize there.
Even if they succeed, it might not be enough to take them back to the top of the table because earlier on Saturday the Premier League weekend begins with leaders Chelsea taking on Everton at Stamford Bridge. It could be quite a story if Everton wins, because Chelsea has never lost a domestic League game at home under Jose Mourinho, but a tie would be enough to keep his team at the pinnacle.
Arsenal will be expected to maintain its challenge with a home win over Sunderland, despite the north-eastern team’s improvement under Gus Poyet. So both City and Arsenal should soon be feeling a bit better about themselves. And in midweek there’s a chance for Premier League morale generally to be raised by Chelsea and Manchester United as they take their turn to enter the Champions League’s knockout stages.
Meanwhile, it might be best if Europe’s vanquished drop any lingering sense of grievance – and the argument, raised by Szczesny’s dismissal, that the double punishment of penalty and red card (not to mention the subsequent suspension) for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity often takes away the competitive edge. As Jamie Carragher said on television: "We wanted to see a big European game and we ended up watching a training session for Bayern."
This issue will be discussed in Zurich next weekend at the annual meeting of FIFA’s International Board. But in my view any move to change would be a disaster for attacking football. Defenders would hack away with relative impunity, trusting in their goalkeepers to save the resultant penalty (as Manuel Neuer did at the Emirates) or the taker to miss (as Mesut Ozil promptly did at the other end of the field). England needs to get its act together – not change soccer.