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Home » Sport » Football

Arsenal have no right to blame the ref

For a brief, flickering moment last night, the 3,000 Arsenal fans watching from the top tier of the Camp Nou were subjected to the most debilitating emotion known to the football-watching man: hope.

The second half had only just got underway when Abou Diaby exploited the fact that the Barcelona team he was facing were so small most of them would be refused entry to half the rides at Alton Towers.

As a corner was gained for the visitors, he stepped forward into the opposition area and, towering over the defence like Stephen Merchant at a midgets' convention, he spread such panic that Sergio Busquets bundled the ball into his own net.

It may not have been pretty, it may not have been the result of the kind of progressive football that his manager espouses, but Diaby's giant intervention was effective.

Suddenly Arsenal were not only back in a tie that had up to that point looked entirely beyond them, they now had one foot in the quarter final.

It was a feeling that was to last roughly five minutes, until the Swiss referee Massimo Busacca destroyed the evening as a competitive event by dismissing Robin van Persie.

It is very easy to blame the official for all your own failings. And Arsene Wenger conformed exactly to type by quickly doing just that after the match, dubbing Busacca's decision "a defeat for football".

Yet it is hard to disagree with the Frenchman that there was something badly amiss in the removal of Van Persie.

For the neutral observer what was so bizarre about the red card was this: why was it that the centre forward, for failing to hear the whistle in a stadium in which 94,000 people were engaging in primal scream therapy was dismissed; while, in other matches, other players remain on the field of play despite attempting onfield surgery on an opponent without the benefit of anaesthetic?

And before enraged Scousers get all uppity about disparaging remarks addressed to their folk hero and angrily point out that Jamie Carragher didn't really mean it, even if he had intended to rip open an opponent's shin with his studs - it doesn't really matter since the player he assaulted is that childish cry baby Nani and everyone would like to give him a slap. I am not referring to the Liverpool player.

But that was in a different competition in which there may be slight differences of interpretation.

Now, what makes me astonished is that Van Persie was deemed such a danger to the game that he had to be removed immediately while, a couple of weeks ago in the San Siro, also in a Champions League tie, Mathieu Flamini was merely cautioned for the reckless attack that put Tottenham's Vedran Corluka in Milan General and out of much of the rest of the season.

Because there is no doubt that the Dutchman's dismissal utterly altered the dynamic last night. Until that point, the tie was in the balance.

Sure Barca were on top, sure Lionel Messi looked terrifyingly threatening every time the ball landed at his twinkling, dancing feet, sure Arsenal's backline at times was spread thinner than William Hague's hair, but, such is the subtleties of the two-legged tie, Arsenal at any moment might have been gifted a decisive breakaway. Instead, they were summarily reduced.

As they had demonstrated in the first half, it is hard enough trying to stop this Barca side with eleven men. With ten, the holes are too substantial. Space is what the Catalan magicians thrive on. Suddenly there was an addition of acres of the stuff into which they could advance. And once Xavi had scored the second goal, there was no way back for the Gunners.

So what can we do? The first thing to point out is that technically Busacca did nothing wrong. The laws of the game obliged him to dismiss Van Persie. Kicking the ball after the whistle has sounded is a bookable offence, and, since he had already been cautioned, the moment he transgressed, he was not so much a gooner as a goner.

The fact is, whatever the temptation, it is not fair to rail against the ref: he had no choice, no room for manoeuvre. Not to act as he did was to invite castigation from his superiors. The real culprit here is the rule book. It is the laws that need changing, to recognise that there is a huge difference between the intent to cause physical harm to an opponent and temporary deafness.

In the current febrile debate about refereeing one thing has become clear: we need a gradation of punishment in the game. It would help the officials as much as it would remove contention.

If ever there was evidence of the urgent requirement to introduce the sin bin, for instance, it was last night.

In truth, given the nature of the opposition they faced, restricting their centre forward's punishment to five minutes off the pitch is unlikely to have saved Arsenal's Champions League campaign.

But at least it would have meant in defeat there could be no sense of robbery and injustice.

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