When Nani was harshly sent off in the Champions League against Real Madrid last season one furious Manchester United fan dialled 999 to report the crime; and although Arsenal supporters have no justification in complaining with the same voracity, there remains a nagging feeling that Wojciech Szczesny’s sending off against Bayern here — and Fifa’s controversial guidelines for referees — robbed us all in some way or another.
Certainly his dismissal after only 37 minutes turned an entertaining, end to end game into a one-sided second-half in which Arsenal defended admirably for long periods but which inevitably lacked the excitement or the competitiveness that had looked so inevitable earlier in the night.
When you consider it came only 24 hours after Manchester City’s chances of beating Barcelona were similarly ended when Martin Demichelis was sent off having given away a penalty at the Etihad, then this is a legitimate time to begin a new debate.
Are we really happy that a player — and in particular a goalkeeper — should automatically be sent off for bringing down a player in the penalty area when it denies him a goalscoring chance? Because it certainly didn’t do anybody justice at the Emirates.
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher made his opinion clear after the game saying: “The rules today say it’s red card but I’d like to see it changed. It’s affecting the biggest games in football. You don’t want to see that.”
Even German midfielder Michael Ballack showed support for Arsenal by adding: “You want to see good football. If it’s outside the box and they don’t get a penalty then maybe a red card. But inside a penalty should be enough.”
The decision wasn’t the fault of Spanish referee Nicola Rizzoli, who had no choice given the current rules; but as so many people are pointing out, somehow it still doesn’t sit right.
There is no doubt that Szczesny’s challenge on Arjen Robben was miss-timed, or that he suffered a rush of blood to the head, or even that he connected with the winger’s shins. It certainly deserved a spot-kick. But, as Gary Lineker eloquently pointed out on Twitter: “Never understood why a player gets a red card for denying a goal scoring opportunity if it’s a penalty. A penalty is a goal scoring opp!”
That argument applies even more to goalkeepers who by definition are the ‘last man’; and when you consider they make most of their challenges within six metres of the goalposts then almost every mistake has the potential to end in a red card.
This isn’t the first time Arsenal have suffered at the hands of a red card in the Champions League of course; bitter memories of the final of 2006 when Jens Lehmann was sent off after 18 minutes in the game against Barcelona still hurt in north London — and there is an argument the club has never truly recovered.
Referee Terje Hauge later admitted he acted too hastily that fatal night in Paris; especially as, following Lehmann’s challenge on Samuel Eto’o, the loose ball fell to Ludovic Giuly who passed it into an empty net but only after the whistle had been blown.
This time Szczesny’s red card — incidentally the 100th Arsenal have endured under Wenger’s reign — was perhaps more clear cut (although there is an argument that his challenge was clumsy rather than cynical). But it had a negative effect on the quality of a game that millions had been eagerly awaiting.
Inevitably Arsenal, despite a brave and battling defensive display that included a penalty save from Lukas Fabianski, lost in the end to a spectacular goal from Tony Kroos and then Thomas Muller’s late, heartbreaking, header which leaves them with an extremely tough task in the second leg.
Were they robbed? Not quite. But nevertheless a sense of injustice hangs in the air. Reports suggest Fifa is set to discuss the controversial ruling on March 1 and is minded to change it; and for the good of football that can’t come quick enough.
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