Referees decisions pivotal again, big teams pulling away from rest
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League.
One particularly problematic law is the one mandating a red card for players who have fouled to deny an opponent an obvious scoring chance. The question of what constitutes an obvious scoring chance faced two referees, Mike Dean at Newcastle and Stuart Atwell at Tottenham, on Saturday. Curiously, in each case, both managers agreed the referee got it wrong.
In the fourth minute at Newcastle, with the scores level, Demba Ba outpaced the Chelsea defense in pursuit of a ball through the center. Just outside the area, David Luiz pushed Ba over from behind. With the crowd baying, Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out ... a yellow card.
Chelsea's 11 men went on to win, 3-0.
After 18 minutes at White Hart Lane, with his team already a goal behind to Spurs, Gary Cahill, the Bolton center back, trying to be cute, gave the ball away to Scott Parker near the halfway line. Cahill reacted the way centerbacks who have just been embarrassed tend to react and tripped Parker. The crowd was hardly baying, but Attwell, who had sent Cahill off at Arsenal last season, reached into his pocket and produced ... a red card.
Spurs, already in control, went on to win, 3-0.
In defense of Dean, Ba had not yet reached the ball and Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalie, was coming out. In defense of Attwell, Knight appeared to be, as so often, on his heels and facing the wrong way.
Like so many big soccer decisions, it was a judgment call and in the second or two before they reached for their pockets the referees, trying to fast-forward in their minds the action across the field, reached different conclusions.
The losing managers were naturally unhappy.
Alan Pardew of Newcastle told the BBC: "I expected a red card and I cannot fathom why he didn't do that." Pardew said Dean told him at halftime "that Ba did not have control of the ball" but added that Ba would have reached the ball before Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalie.
Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager seemed more rueful than angry, said he was "bemused" by the decision.
What was unusual was the reaction of the two managers who had benefitted, although both could assume a more Olympian attitude since their teams won.
Andres Villas-Boas told Sky: "We've been treated unfairly for quite a while but maybe the decision went for us today." That's quite a concession for a manager who seems to share with his mentor and Chelsea predecessor José Mourinho an unappealing streak of paranoia and desire to use every interview to score points, but without the occasionally redeeming flashes of humor or charm.
Harry Redknapp of Spurs told the BBC: "I couldn't believe the red card." He then obligingly compared the two incidents.
"I saw a game earlier today where was a blatant sending off, send the player off," he said of the Chelsea game. "One was 55 yards from goal and one was 20 yards from goal and clear in on goal."
Redknapp's conclusion on how to interpret the law: "I dunno really. It's a difficult one." No doubt Dean and Attwell would agree.
The easiest thing might be to stay with chatty Harry for his analysis.
His Spurs were yet again comically wasteful in front of goal, but nevertheless dispatched Bolton to win for the 10th time in 11 games and rise, briefly, to second. Redknapp has said his team could win the league, but when asked about whether his team was showing championship form, his face grew even glummer than usual.
"That's the form you've got to show if you're going to stay in contention for the Champions League places, let alone anything else," he said. "Because everybody else is winning at the top there."
"Chelsea won away."
"You've seen Arsenal go away from home today and win. They're bang in form."
Arsenal crushed Wigan, 4-0, to rise to fifth.
"Manchester City won again."
City pulverized Norwich, 5-1.
"Manchester United nearly always win."
Redknapp was right. United later win, 1-0, at Aston Villa
Before adding, with a grimace and a repetition that suggested who he thinks the scariest team is: "Manchester City won again."
"You can't afford not to win or you lose ground so quickly."
Indeed, more than half of the division has already lost too much ground. Liverpool, as Redknapp also pointed out, play Monday. If they win as well, the gap between eighth place and ninth could be as much as 10 points.