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The referees steal the spotlight

In a perfect world, we wouldn't be talking about referees at this stage. We'd be getting excited about the Champions League final and the clash between two of the biggest clubs in the universe, two clubs that play attacking soccer and usually entertain (though not always, remember last year's semifinal), two clubs that will probably win their domestic leagues, which also happen to be the two strongest leagues in the world.

Alas, right now it's rather hard to do that given the officiating controversy and the virulent reaction to both semifinals (admittedly, one was rather more virulent than the other).

The day after the Arsenal vs. Manchester United game, I had a cup of coffee with UEFA's director of communications, who, predictably, had a rather busy morning, fielding a wave of telephone calls and e-mails regarding DarrenFletcher, whose red card means he will miss the final. Referee Roberto Rosetti sent Fletcher off and awarded Arsenal a penalty for the United midfielder's tackle on Cesc Fàbregas.

You've probably seen it a billion times by now. Fletcher somehow got the ball, though his momentum took Fàbregas down. It was a cruel decision, as it meant he would be suspended for the final and it led to an outpouring of bile from the media, fans and the punditocracy who insisted Rosetti got the decision wrong. Manchester United appealed on "compassionate" grounds, even though ordinarily you are not allowed to appeal refereeing decisions, except in cases of mistaken identity.

However busy UEFA's press office was on Wednesday morning, it must have paled by comparison with what happened the next day following Chelsea vs. Barcelona (RECAP). Referee Tom Ovrebo sent off Barça defender Éric Abidal and turned down four penalty appeals. This, coupled with Andrés Iniesta's dramatic late equalizer, brought a furious reaction from the Chelsea camp.

Didier Drogba screamed that it was a "f---ing disgrace" into the television cameras and then confronted Ovrebo in the tunnel. Michael Ballack chased him up and down the pitch. José Bosingwa went so far as to say Ovrebo must have been "bought." And the English media was full of suggestions that this was UEFA's revenge, since it supposedly didn't want to see two Premier League sides in the final.

Let's deal with Fletcher first. He's a very nice guy and a great professional. His is an underdog story: He's humble and he worked his way into United's starting lineup, despite arriving at Old Trafford as a 16-year-old with very little fanfare. And we all feel very sorry that he'll have to miss out on the final.

But the rules are pretty clear. Just because you make contact with the ball doesn't mean you haven't committed a foul. As GrahamPoll, the former English referee, explained rather eloquently, Fletcher's momentum took Fàbregas down. And while he did get a touch on the ball, he failed to clear it, which meant his tackle denied Fàbregas a goal-scoring opportunity.

Was it harsh? Maybe. If Rosetti hadn't given it, it wouldn't have been a scandalous decision. But this doesn't mean his decision was wrong, no matter how bad we feel for Fletcher. So he won't get to play in the Champions League final this year. He's 25, he'll get another chance. Heck, United was there last season, too.

Most important, that decision didn't affect the outcome of the game. Arsenal was dominated by United over the two legs. The same can't be said for Barcelona and Chelsea.

Ovrebo did have a poor game. Abidal's red card was very harsh, especially since Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka took several steps after contact was made and then appeared to trip on his own legs. (Incidentally, Abidal will miss the final as well -- I wonder if anybody feels badly for him?) With Chelsea's recriminations, it wasn't so much that there was a single penalty claim that stands out, it's that it's rare to get so many in a single match and have all of them go in the same direction.

Dani Alves' collision with Florent Malouda in the first half was clearly in the box. Personally, I don't think it was a foul -- if anything, it looked as if Malouda ran into his opponent. However, if you do give the foul, as Ovrebo did, you have to give a penalty. Instead, he signaled for a free kick just outside the box. That would imply he didn't see where the collision occurred, which is rather worrying, because it was very much in the penalty area.

Chelsea had a strong case when Abidal pulled Drogba down in the area. Drogba did very little to stay on his feet (not for the first time), but it was the kind of incident you generally expect to see punished with a penalty. The most obvious claim, to me, came in the second half, when the ball clearly struck GerardPiqué's hand. The Spanish defenderdidn't move his arm toward the ball, but the fact that it was outstretched pretty much trumps any argument. UEFA's directives to referees indicate that when your limbs are in an "uncoordinated" or "unnatural" position, you're responsible for them. That should have been a penalty for the same reason that you can't wander around the penalty area with your arms in the air and expect not to be punished if the ball strikes them.

On the contrary, Chelsea's fourth claim was rather spurious. When the ball hit Samuel Eto'o's upper arm, it was close to his body and he was turning away. You can't really give a penalty in those circumstances.

Chelsea had a right to feel aggrieved if only because Guus Hiddink's crew played very well at Stamford Bridge and, over the two legs, probably deserved to go through. Chelsea certainly created many more chances in the return leg, though, in absolute terms, Barcelona is -- at least for my money -- a better team.

Kudos must also go to Hiddink. It's the second time he has seen the dream of a final evaporate because of a last-minute goal (it also happened against AC Milan back when he was at PSV Eindhoven). He faced the media with plenty of dignity and, while he didn't hide his anger at Ovrebo's officiating, he did say that if Chelsea had converted the numerous chances it created, "We would not need to have this fuss over the refereeing decisions."

And that, ultimately, is the truth. Even with the bad calls, Chelsea did more than enough to win. Poor finishing was just as responsible as Ovrebo for the Blues' exit.

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