Barclays Premier League – March 23rd 2008 – Result
Man United 3 Liverpool 0
At the risk of sounding like an Evertonian bleating about decisions from 20 years or more ago, any Liverpool fan must be wondering how might this game have turned out had referee Steve Bennett had more about him than the arrogant ego-driven approach to the first half. No doubt the refereeing community will close ranks around their own, but secretly they must be cringing at the latest incident of a referee single-handedly changing the outcome of a game through awful decisions.
Manchester United hadn’t played particularly well in the first half, but they’d put a performance in that requires some fight from the opposition. Liverpool looked uninterested, Reina playing the first half as though he’d spent the bank holiday weekend with Charles Itandje. Jamie Carragher was out of sorts; Steven Gerrard was out of the game completely, both as player and as captain. It was no surprise when Wes Brown scored, but his goal didn’t seem to stir any fight in a Liverpool side who were unchanged from their last game, the win over Reading eight days ago at Anfield. United had made eight changes for the game, Liverpool none, although this will be largely glossed over by those who criticise Rafa relentlessly for his rotation.
As the first half ticked towards its ends Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez would have been pondering his options. One goal down it seemed likely United would play the second half glad to hold onto that goal and try to hit the Reds on the counter, so the options Rafa was mulling over were surely positive changes to try and finally test Van der Sar. Add to that a passionate team-tale to wake the players up. Until Bennett proved his arrogance.
Fouls in the early stages of the game were no worse than seen in any game of this nature, from either side, which made the booking of Mascherano by Bennett on eleven minutes so out of place. Mascherano was disappointed, he’d done nothing worse than had gone before, but now the referee had made his mark and surely set the boundaries for the rest of the game. At least if he’d been consistent he would have. But this referee approached the game with words of warning ringing in his ears from Alex Ferguson, a rebuke from his own boss ringing in his hears, with the home crowd’s opinions ringing in his ears as the game went on, and had he not made a meal of so many games for so many other clubs in recent years his ears would now be ringing with accusations of bias.
Mascherano was booked without warning. Often in games of this nature a player will be pulled to one side and told that if he does that again he’ll be going in the book. Again, not every referee does this, and if a referee is consistent and even-handed this usually isn’t a problem. But whilst Bennett chose to book Mascherano without warning, without a chat to explain he wants things toning down, he was happy to allow United’s Vidic and Anderson that type of leeway after booking Mascherano. The Argentinean midfielder was obviously unhappy, understandably so, but despite asking Bennett time and again to explain why he was booked and the others weren’t, the arrogant man “in control” ignored him.
This is the man who sent Xabi Alonso off at Highbury two seasons ago for an incident he didn’t even see. Alonso had slipped, and in doing so had brought Mathieu Flamini down behind the referee’s back. But replays clearly showed that not only was it a slip, a pure accident, Bennett had not even been looking at the incident. Because it was a second yellow, rather than a straight red, the club and player weren’t able to appeal against the decision, but Bennett refused to reconsider the decision. Replays proved he wasn’t watching, but rather than admit a mistake – even if it wouldn’t change the result or decrease the suspension – he wouldn’t even look again at it! Arrogance like that is not acceptable in a referee at any level, let alone the Premiership, but Keith Hackett seems to have been happy with it so far.
The flashpoint today came when Steve Bennett booked Torres for “dissent”. The Spanish striker was the victim for the whole ninety minutes of rough treatment, knees in his back and kicks in his Achilles, something a lot of forwards get these days. When he was brought down just inside the United half in what was a cynical challenge designed to prevent Liverpool from launching an attack he was unhappy. Ferdinand knew what he was doing, knew he’d get away with it nine times out of ten, and Ferdinand was the third player to hack at Torres in that moment of possession the Spaniard had just had. Torres asked the referee why he was allowing so many challenges like this to go without punishment. The referee booked him for asking.
That in itself was a ridiculous decision; one which would perhaps be acceptable if we’d seen similar punishment handed out in other games week in week out. It wasn’t a case of Liverpool players surrounding the referee or angrily shouting inches from the referee’s face. It was Torres asking why he was allowed to be persistently fouled in this way, asking why the referee chatted to United players instead of booking them. The arguments for stamping that kind of dissent out in the game are understandable – but it’s not down to one referee to introduce unilateral changes of approach in this way – and Torres had done nothing more than ask the referee for some protection.
And Mascherano was still waiting for an answer to the same question, why did he get booked when United players were committing fouls as bad and getting away with it? He’d asked the referee a few times, and had been ignored each time. Would it hurt the referee to acknowledge the question, to answer the player?
The referee had lost the plot by now though. Mascherano went over to him, with no signs of aggression in his demeanour, no signs of anger. Replays showed him wearing a bemused smile as he asked the question one more time. It was asked in as much of a good humour as any passionate player can have when he sees a referee so one-sided he wouldn’t have looked out of place refereeing an Italian side in Europe in the days of old. He’d just seen his teammate booked for asking a question after being hacked down. A simple question, yet he got a second yellow and his marching orders for his trouble. Steve Bennett wanted the headlines.
Critics of Mascherano will say he should have kept quiet – and perhaps he should. His captain should have been calming him down, telling him to let it go, that referees like Bennett are too arrogant to consider they might have made a mistake, but should have asking the same questions himself. But Gerrard seemed subdued in more ways than one today. Mascherano was angry after his first booking, but Bennett hadn’t once responded to him and explained what had happened. If anything Bennett seemed determined not to book United players, as if to show Mascherano that he was boss!
Had Bennett been a consistent referee there would already have been yellow cards before Mascherano’s, or by the time the game got to 43 minutes it wouldn’t have been just Mascherano with his name in the book. What happened on 44 minutes will embarrass the referees who at least try to be fair in games. Making mistakes is a part of life, something everybody does, and something any good referee will do. But Bennett is incapable of holding his hands up and admitting his mistakes, and so is incapable of learning from them.
Bennett’s boss, Keith Hackett, criticised him for his inaction on Wednesday night when Ashley Cole was booked for what has been widely agreed since should have been a straight red. Hackett says as fourth official Bennett should have used his communication device to contact referee Mike Riley to tell him what had happened. It’s rare for Hackett to criticise his own, to admit they have made mistakes or errors of judgement, and so it’s unlikely he’ll give Bennett the long suspension he clearly needs. It’s also a coincidence that had Bennett acted in the way his boss would have expected him to, Chelsea would be missing Ashley Cole today in their match against United’s title rivals Arsenal.
The game itself was over at that point in terms of Liverpool getting back into it. A red card at 0-0 and this Liverpool team probably could have held out, maybe even getting a goal themselves, but getting back from 1-0 was too much to ask for against a team so full of pace. That said the second-half Liverpool did seem to have more fight than in the first half, but it was never going to be enough. Rio Ferdinand finally got a booking after 60 minutes, but not for any of his fouls. Torres limped off before the end, replaced by John Arne Riise, as Rafa realised there was little point trying to get a goal back now that Liverpool were 3-0 down.
Liverpool had hardly been at the races in the first-half; Reina in particular had looked out of sorts and had to accept some of the blame for Wes Brown’s opener. United looked most likely to score first, United’s Van der Sar a spectator for the first half. What he could see from his goal were errors from Reina including throwing the ball to an opponent 25 yards out, and almost knocking the ball into his own net when a Giggs cross seemed to confuse him. He did seem to have the sun in his eyes in that first half, but unless he’s also boycotting official merchandise (including caps) until the ownership situation is resolved then it’s hardly an excuse for what was one of his worst halves in a Liverpool shirt. His second half performance was far better, as he was called into action more than once and he helped keep the score at 1-0 until 79 minutes.
The game started in a typical North West derby fashion, if anything a little less high-speed than normal. Wayne Rooney had a case for a penalty when another off-colour player – Jamie Carragher – lunged for the ball in the box and although contact with Rooney was minimal, contact with the ball was non-existent. Rooney stayed on his feet and his shot was blocked by Reina, but given Bennett’s performance from then on it’s a shock he didn’t give the Manchester side the penalty anyway.
As the half went on and United had got a goal that was always coming, Liverpool needed a half-time team talk urging them to make more of an effort and show their true abilities. Perhaps a substitution would be in order, if not on half-time itself then soon after. The 4-2-3-1 formation had become 4-5-1 with Torres largely isolated instead of supported. Peter Crouch had already been warming up, and something needed to change.
All of that went out of the window when the referee proved his arrogance and his ego were going to be the subject of headlines tomorrow. Down to ten men, Liverpool found themselves vulnerable every time they tried to attack in the second half.
That said, they still had some hopes of getting something out of the game, but the clincher for United came on 79 minutes. United had won a corner from a save Pepe Reina made but was convinced had come from a shot by an offside Ronaldo. He wasn’t offside as replays showed, and the corner was once again Liverpool’s undoing. Xabi Alonso lost his man, Ronaldo, and the United top-scorer scored again. A shell-shocked Liverpool conceded again two minutes later, Nani the scorer, and the game that had pretty much been over on 44 minutes was now over without any doubts.
Torres had been clattered one time too many and had received treatment shortly before the second United goal. Rafa decided there was no point risking him staying on the field to get more rough treatment in front of the indifferent referee, and with perhaps a worry that Torres may miss the derby if the injury was serious enough decided also to leave Crouch on the bench.
It’s difficult to admit it, but Manchester United have the players that can win games like these on their own, but today they had help. Ronaldo (who could have been a Liverpool player for a fraction of the fee Manchester United paid, had officials at Anfield not baulked at paying him wages that were actually lower than they paid Anthony Le Tallec) was quiet by his own standards, as was Wayne Rooney for large parts of the game. Liverpool are capable of holding their own against teams like Manchester United, but with the mistake-ridden performances seen in the first half teams like Manchester United will always capitalise. There’s still a need for money to be spent by Liverpool this summer, but when the referee is willing to add a little bit more help for the home side there’s little point in turning up.
Referees make mistakes in what is a high-pressure job, often having to judge an incident that happened in a split second and having to be wary of players who dive, or feign injury, and when fans have had time to calm down most will accept that the referee was not deliberately out with some vendetta against their club, without feeling the need to suggest money had changed hands or that the referees of the world are told to be biased towards certain clubs. A referee pleased with his decisions will explain them; a referee who knows he made a mistake despite making his best efforts will hold his hands up and say so. A referee who arrogantly put his own ego first in his approach to a game will keep quiet and refuse to even consider explaining his decisions or admitting mistakes. Don’t expect any statements from Steve Bennett.
Manchester United: 1 Van der Sar, 6 Brown, 5 Ferdinand, 15 Vidic, 3 Evra, 7 Ronaldo, 18 Scholes, 16 Carrick, 8 Anderson (32 Tevez, 73), 11 Giggs (17 Nani, 73), 10 Rooney
Unused subs: 29 Kuszczak, 4 Hargreaves, 22 O’Shea
Booking: Ferdinand 60
Goals: Brown 34, Ronaldo 79, Nani 81
Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 12 Aurelio, 20 Mascherano, 14 Alonso, 18 Kuyt, 8 Gerrard, 19 Babel (11 Benayoun, 66), 9 Torres (6 Riise, 82)
Unused subs: 30 Itandje, 4 Hyypia, 15 Crouch
Bookings: Mascherano 11, Torres 44, Arbeloa 53
Sent off: Mascherano 44
BBC Stats (Man Utd – Liverpool)
Possession: 61% – 39%
Shots on target: 16 – 4
Shots off target: 7 – 4
Corners: 2 – 4
Fouls: 12 – 12
Referee: Steve Bennett