English Premiership

Fergie faces football karma

2011-03-03 17:36
Alex Ferguson (AFP)

John Leicester - The Associated Press

London - Call it football karma or the rule that one bad bit of refereeing deserves another.

Alex Ferguson was incensed that referee Martin Atkinson didn't red-card David Luiz for flagrant fouls in Chelsea's 2-1 victory this week over Manchester United.

By pegging back the leader, the result set up the prospect of a nail-biting conclusion to this bizarre Premier League season where the top teams have suffered surprising moments of weakness and doubt.

Still, Ferguson was right to be angry, because Luiz's off-the-ball upending of Wayne Rooney should have seen him sent off.

Even so, this injustice felt right. That is because Rooney avoided punishment just three days earlier for his elbowed assault on Wigan's James McCarthy. Mark Clattenburg was the referee whose eyesight or judgment failed him that time.

No one expected that poetic justice for Rooney's lucky escape would come so soon. Certainly not Ferguson. In a quarter-century at United, the Scotsman has learned to play the victim well.

But the fact that Ferguson failed or refused to see the irony in him protesting about bad refereeing at Chelsea when similar mistakes helped him in United's 4-0 win at Wigan provoked peals of mirth in the press room at Stamford Bridge. Such cheek, Fergie.

"These are decisions that change the game," he said. Then, with a dramatic pause and a theatrical shoulder-shrug, he added: "And he's going to be refereeing every week."

United and its doubtless aggrieved fans should remember, however, that such errors tend to cancel themselves out over the course of a season.

As crucial as a refereeing decision may seem at the time, United will only have itself to blame if it fails to convert its position of strength at the top of the league table into a record 19th English title.

The same is true of Arsenal, United's heel-snapping rival, and Manchester City and Chelsea. Either of those last two could still lift the 25kg Premier League trophy should the front-runners suffer late-season breakdowns. Given the peculiarities of this term, that cannot be ruled out.

Unlike in Spain, there has been no Barcelona-like standout in the 2010-11 Premier League. Despite their strengths, the top teams have also been hampered by glaring shortcomings.

Like exhausted boxers, none has had the overwhelming strength to land the knockout blow. All lost matches they should have won - the Manchester rivals and Chelsea, for example, to Wolves and Arsenal at home to West Brom.

That does not mean the league is becoming more egalitarian but rather that the superiority of the top teams has come in bursts rather than being consistent.

United's Achilles heel has been its repeated failure to dominate opponents when taken out of its comfort zone at Old Trafford. United has the toughest-looking end to the season, with games at Newcastle and Arsenal and a trip this weekend to Liverpool that will be harder without the defensive reassurance of Rio Ferdinand (injured) and captain Nemanja Vidic (suspended).

If United is not crowned champion, it will rue the 16 points it has so far left behind in eight away matches where it managed only to draw, at places like Fulham and Birmingham.

For Arsenal, its dreams could be haunted by memories of 'keeper Manuel Almunia's jelly fingers in its 3-2 loss to West Brom in September and Younes Kaboul's headed winner for Tottenham in November.

That 3-2 loss made Arsene Wenger so furious that he threw his bottle of water. But the Arsenal manager shares some blame for not having corrected his team's defensive frailties.

Despite Wenger's mantra that his young side is wiser and tougher than it used to be, those qualities still disappear at times from Arsenal with the speed of a teenager asked to help out with the washing up.

Manchester City has yet to master the alchemy of turning cash into trophies. Given its owner's oil wealth, it is only a question of when, not if, City will one day become champion. But manager Roberto Mancini's expensively and quickly assembled squad has not gelled fast enough for that to happen this season.

At Chelsea, fans chanted "that's why we're the champions" after the defeat of United on Tuesday night and they showed their faith with a banner that read "CHELSEA OUR RELIGION." Football does work in mysterious ways.

Still, barring an unlikely meltdown by United and Arsenal, the London side's hold on the trophy will soon be over.

Chelsea's two-month winter slump when it picked up just 10 points in 11 games blew a hole below the waterline of its superb start to the season, when it scored 27 goals and conceded just three in its first 10 matches.

Ultimately, the best thing to come out of this year for Chelsea could be the recruitment of Luiz, its thrilling Brazilian defender.

The 206 games still to play in the league are enough to confound any predictions of who will win and who will drop to the next division.

However, it still looks like United's title to lose.

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