Liverpool beats West Ham amidst controversial officiating; more EPL

Sunday April 6th, 2014

Steven Gerrard converted two penalty kicks, one that was controversial, as Liverpool beat West Ham 2-1.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Two wrongs cancel out -- It was never going to be pretty at Upton Park on Sunday -- it rarely is these days.

Liverpool needed two penalty kicks, the second extremely generous, to break down a West Ham team sent out to defend and to harass. Steven Gerrard converted both. Liverpool won, 2-1, to go back to the top of the Premier League.

Gerrard might have been the match winner, but the central performer was the referee, Anthony Taylor, who in addition to awarding two penalties also allowed West Ham a goal by Guy Demel even though one of the linesmen flagged for a foul.

No one argued about the first penalty, a handball by West Ham's James Tompkins after 44 minutes. But barely a minute later, the first controversial incident took place. Andy Carroll, the West Ham striker, had promised before the game to hurt his former club. He did so -- literally -- as he whacked Simon Mignolet in the head while the Liverpool keeper was trying to catch a corner. Mignolet dropped the ball. Demel poked it in. The assistant waved for a foul and Taylor overruled him.

After 71 minutes, Adrian, the West Ham goalie, dived at the feet of Jon Flanagan. Adrian reached the ball but Flanagan went flying. Taylor pointed to the spot. Adrian then pointed to his right post. Gerrard slammed the ball just where Adrian had indicated, but the goalie couldn't reach it.

"I did what he asked me to do," Gerrard told Sky TV.

Naturally, the managers had rather different views of the game.

Sam Allardyce of West Ham blamed the officials.

"Unfortunately, we are talking about the officials," he told Sky. "We are talking about it nearly every weekend when we play a game of football. They try their best. They don't go out to make mistakes. But we need more quality on the field."

Allardyce was indignant not only about the second penalty, but about a string of other, smaller wrongs that the officials had apparently done to his team. He was even offended by the assistant's attempt to disallow Demel's goal, even though Allardyce accepted that Carroll had fouled Mignolet.

"Far and away beyond his reach," he said of the assistant's intervention asking how he could possibly have seen from the touchline. Although, if a linesman cannot see fouls just 35 yards away, perhaps he should find another job.

Maybe one reason West Ham keeps having run-ins with referees is its style. It is a style epitomized by the fact that Carroll, who hit the bar with a header in the second half, plays for it and not Liverpool.

"You have to put up with a lot of direct balls up to the front players and lots of pressure physically," Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, told Sky.

As one might expect, the winning manager was far more forgiving of Taylor, saying he understood why the referee had allowed the Demel goal.

"He thought the keeper dropped it," Rodgers said. "From there the referee was perhaps chasing the game a wee bit."

But if that might imply that the second penalty was in some ways an equalizing decision, Rodgers was having none of it.

"No doubt it was a penalty," he said. "No doubt at all."

Well that clears that up.

Borrowed glory -- Everton might still trail Arsenal by one point in the Premier League, but the way it hunted down the Gunners in its 3-0 win at Goodison on Sunday suggests it can also hunt them down in the standings.

Everton may have home games against the two Manchester clubs among its remaining fixtures, but it also has a game in hand on Arsenal. The six-goal swing in goal difference also gives Everton a five-goal edge in the tiebreaker. Most importantly of all, it's in form, and it's easy to see why it's won six straight league games. Arsenal, on the other hand, has not won in its last four games, and it looked tired, uninspired and sloppy while Everton played with verve, skill and hunger.

Roberto Martínez outcoached Arsène Wenger, placing Steven Naismith in the center of the attack with Romelu Lukaku on the right. Arsenal could not keep track of the pair. While defenders stood and watched, Naismith pounced on a rebound from a Lukaku shot to roll the first goal into an empty net. Then Lukaku cut in from his wing to score the second. To complete a perfect afternoon for the home fans, Mikel Arteta, who left them to join Arsenal, finished the scoring with an own goal.

Everton took away Arsenal's strength, overwhelming its opponents in midfield. It also seemed to have extra men on the flanks throughout. The victory was so comfortable that long before the end the home fans were able to indulge in "olés" for every successful pass and Seamus Coleman, the Everton right back, did circus tricks with the ball.

"One of our signature performances since I've been here at Everton," Tim Howard, the American goalie summer up for Sky TV. "The way we controlled the game, scored the goals, kept it clean at the back, I thought it was a good performance."

So, Martínez could very well deliver instantly on his promise to take Everton into the Champions League. And then what? Everton could very well be a victim of its success. Two of its key performers from the game are on loan.

Lukaku belongs to Chelsea. Is striker-starved José Mourinho going to allow the Belgian to join a potential 2015 title challenger? Remember Willian. Mourinho wants to hurt his rivals, not help them.

Gareth Barry, who dominated central midfield, belongs to Manchester City. City probably don't have any use for a 33-year-old defensive midfielder, but will it let him stay at fast-rising Everton?

Enjoy it while you can Evertonians. For clubs of Everton's financial resources, success on the field often attracts the grabbing hands of wealthier teams (remember Arteta, Wayne Rooney and Jack Rodwell). And because several of its key players are borrowed, not owned, Everton is particularly vulnerable to asset stripping.

The end of the world -- After Southampton lost, 4-1, at Manchester City on Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino, the Saints manager, went through the motions of complaining about the officials.

"We were the victims of two dumb refereeing decisions," Pochettino told the press conference.

Certainly the pivotal goal by Samir Nasri, which broke a 1-1 tie in added time in the first half, should have been disallowed. David Silva, who assisted, had been five yards offside.

On the other hand, for the penalty from which Yaya Touré had scored City's opening goal, the word dumb should be applied to José Fonte, a Southampton center back, who lifted a leg into Edin Dzeko's midriff after being wrong-footed by the City striker.

Southampton outplayed the home team for the first 45 minutes, a fact that Manuel Pellegrino, the City manager readily acknowledged. Yet at half time, City led 3-1.

One reason is that City is ruthless in turning errors, whether made by opponents or officials, into goals.

"We scored three goals," was Pellegrini's in-depth analysis of the first half.

Another reason was that the game mattered a great deal for City, who's trying to win the league, and not very much at all for Southampton, already sure of a respectable mid-table finish.

For Southampton, and perhaps for Roy Hodgson, the England manager who was in the crowd, the key moment of the game came after 26 minutes. Jay Rodriguez leapt to trap a ball with no City player near him. He landed awkwardly, curled up in agony and was carried off on a stretcher.

"We do not know the extent of the problem yet because we have not completed an assessment, but it is not looking good," Pochettino told the press conference. "All the players are really upset, they can see how severe the injury is."

Adam Lallana, the other Spanish-qualified England international on the Southampton team, reiterated the point.

"We are all absolutely devastated for him," Lallana told the BBC. "Forget the decision for the offside, forget the result, forget everything, we are just disappointed for our teammate."

And, if Rodriguez has damaged knee ligaments, forget the World Cup. Rodriguez, who made his England debut in November, was not a certainty for Brazil, but he had a strong chance of making the squad. Instead, trying to reinforce his chances in an otherwise meaningless late-season match, he may have ended them.

Rodriguez is not the only player for a mid-table club to suffer a potential World Cup-ending injury in recent days. Christian Benteke, a striker for the rising Belgium team, of Aston Villa ruptured an Achilles' tendon in training on Thursday.

Marc Wilmots, the Belgium manager, might be tempted to ask Everton to put his other center forward, Lukaku, in a box of cotton wool for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, Everton still has something to play for.

Indeed, the coming weeks will provide some difficult decisions for players expecting to star in Brazil, like damaged Wayne Rooney, Sergio Agüero or Jack Wilshere whose clubs all need help as they fight for trophies.

Should Rooney rush back from another toe injury to attempt to salvage Manchester United's Champions League quarterfinal in Munich on Wednesday? Man City's Agüero has missed four matches with a hamstring problem, always a scary injury to return from. The hamstring stops hurting even when it isn't properly healed. Agüero worked out before the game on Saturday, and should be, Pellegrini said, in "perfect" shape for the visit to Anfield next week.

An awful lot of players who are hoping to spend their summer in Brazil will have watched the slow-motion replays of Rodriguez and dealt with a strong shiver of terror.

More Mourinho mischief -- English is not Mourinho's mother tongue. It may not be even his second language, that's probably Spanish. Yet he has no real rivals in the Premier League as a smart and surprising talker. If it's sometimes difficult to work out just what point he is making, that's not because of his poor command of English grammar, it's because he doesn't always want to make it clear what message he is sending and who he is sending it to.

Sometimes Mourinho can send a message without saying anything. That's presumably what he was up to when he declined to pick either of his healthy central strikers in the starting lineup away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last Tuesday. He was driving home his point that Roman Abramovich needs to splash out on new attackers. Abramovich might have had other, less cooperative thoughts after Chelsea lost, 3-1, with an uncharacteristically nervy defensive display.

Back home on Saturday, the defense was back to its dominating best against a far less talented adversary, Stoke. Chelsea won, 3-0.

The victory took Chelsea briefly back into first place. After the game he was asked, repeatedly, whether he still thought his team could not win the league.

"The situation is the same," he told the BBC. "The table is fake."

So far so good. Mourinho is still trying to cast his team in the role of underdog.

But the brief rant that followed is more puzzling:

"The table is again with lots of matches in hand," he said, referring to the fact that third place Manchester City, which is two points behind Chelsea, has played two fewer games.

"You look to the top part of the table and, some teams, they have more matches than others...This, in the best league in the world, I don't think it is the best image we are giving and it's not the best situation...To play matches in hand in the last week of the season, I don't think is adapted to this top football country."

City has those games in hand because it was more successful in domestic cup competitions than Chelsea and because its game with Sunderland was a victim of the English weather. That could happen even in a league run to Mourinho's exacting managerial standards -- unless he can control the wind and the rain, which is one superpower he has never publicly claimed.

If Chelsea had to play an extra league game in the middle of the last week of the season, as City do, Mourinho would, no doubt, complain about that.

What is he trying to do? Make City feel guilty, or nervous, because it has matches in hand? Pressure the Premier League into canceling these games?

Perhaps he's simply frustrated by the fact that the destination of the league title is out of his control. If City wins all of its remaining games, it will be the Premier League champion. The same goes for Liverpool. Chelsea needs one of its rivals to slip.

"In the top of the league we cannot say we need 'X' points to be champions," he complained.

Well, if Chelsea had picked up five more points somewhere, it would be in a position to know what it had to do to win the league.

The bad truth -- If Mourinho's outburst was puzzling, Wenger's meditation on hair care excursion earlier in the day was deeply bewildering.

Wenger chose his press conference ahead of the Everton game to warn of the dangers of hair-restoring products.

"If you lose your hair, and if you've taken something to make your hair grow, it might not be good, especially for the rest of your body," he said.

Such products can lead to muscle injuries he said.

"Some of them are down to the medication that the players take that you don't even know about," Wenger said of the injuries. "Then you realize afterwards that they took this medication but that's not prudent. The liver doesn't work as well, toxins don't leave the body as quickly as they should and they get tired."

Wenger has spent almost 18 years battling with such masters of psychological warfare as Mourinho and Alex Ferguson. Was this some ploy to undermine Martínez, his rival the next day, who, unlike Wenger, is balding?

Maybe he was trying to bait Everton's shaven-headed players, who are presumably disguising some hair loss: Howard, Naismith and Leon Osman. Maybe Wenger did get under Osman's scalp. The Everton captain gave himself a concussion fouling Bacary Sagna after just 10 minutes. Naismith and Howard seemed unruffled.

Or is Wenger sending a message to Arsenal fans? Is he suggesting that the team's catastrophic injury problems were caused by hair products? Arsenal's collapse is not his fault, it's due to hair restorers. It's an original and intriguing excuse.

It would be good to get to the root of the mystery.

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