Referees decisions pivotal again, big teams pulling away from rest
Two controversial referee decisions cost Newcastle and Bolton dearly
Inconsistent striker Yakubu hit for four goals for Blackburn against Swansea
Aston Villa fans were unhapy with their team's lack of ambition against Man United
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League.
1. Seeing yellow. Decisions by the officials can be pivotal in any sport, but in soccer referees regularly face split-second decisions that will shape a whole game. Soccer is such a low-scoring sport, so anything related to a goal can be decisive and the punishments can be so drastic. A foul 19 yards from goal yields a mildly threatening free kick. Three feet further forward the result is a penalty and an almost certain goal. A yellow card is a warning. A red card leaves a team down to 10 men. No wonder managers, whose teams have just lost to a penalty kick or after playing a man short, inevitably pass the blame on to referees.
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 Josť 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.
2. Flexing their muscles. Every Monday this column gets an e-mail from one fan, whose team are in the bottom half of the table, complaining about the "Perfectly Predictable Premier League." This season has been a little less predictable than many in recent years, with Arsenal's stuttering start, Liverpool's horrible home form and Newcastle's early surge. But that's often the case early on, before the big clubs bed in their summer signings and before injuries hobble the less wealthy squads. Saturday's results did suggest that the predictable pattern is starting to assert itself.
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.
3. Newcastle on the brink. Just over two weeks ago, Newcastle was third and unbeaten. Then it started a testing run of three games against the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. It picked up just one point. The problem is not that Newcastle was outplayed in those games. It wasn't. Indeed, in a rip-roaring match Saturday it went toe-to-toe with Chelsea for 80 minutes. In almost every position, Chelsea was superior, yet it remains less than the sum of its parts, while Pardew's Magpies are clearly more than the sum of theirs. What has been exposed is the thinness of the Newcastle squad. It started without its two big bodies in midfield, the mighty Cheick Tiote, who is injured, and the canny Jonas Gutierrez who was suspended. One of Newcastle's strengths had been that Pardew had been able to start the same back five in every game. But one center back, Fabricio Coloccini, limped off after 27 minutes, 10 minutes before Didier Drogba opened the scoring with a close-range header. Then left back Ryan Taylor went off near the end leaving his team with 10 men and allowing Danny Sturridge and Salomon Kalou to add late goals for Chelsea. Early reports suggest Taylor has a torn Achilles and could be out for the whole season. The testing times look set to continue.
4. The Yak is back. On his frequent travels, Yakubu has time and again shown that he is a striker who can do it all. On Saturday, he scored from 12 yards out and from close range, with his feet and with his head and finished with all four goals as Blackburn beat Swansea, 4-2, to climb out of last place. It was an impressive display and took his tally for the season to 10. Of course, one reason the Yak has traveled so much is that he doesn't do it enough. His career has been interrupted by injuries or by loss of form or interest. Still, his latest manager, Steve Kean, is bald, so he doesn't have any hair to pull out. But at the moment, Kean, subject of a fan protest after the game even though his team won, will grab anything he can. Perhaps, the Yak will think twice before grabbing his manager again. After he'd slammed the first goal, the Nigerian ran over and slapped palms with Kean, as he did so the cheers from the fans changed to boos. They may, for now, love Yakubu, but they really hate Kean.
5. Singing the claret and blues. There were also boos for the home manager at Villa Park, as the home team lost to Manchester United. United may only have won 1-0, but it barely broke sweat. Some of the problems are a result of owner Randy Lerner desire to get wages in line with revenues. Yet the Villa fans who didn't want Alex McLeish when he was hired away from local rival Birmingham because they felt the Scot's tactics were too dour, are being proved right. Villa set out to thwart United, a tactic it did not execute very well and which it did not abandon until long after it had fallen a goal behind. Brad Guzan, Villa's American goalie who came on in the 38th minute after Shay Given hurt a hamstring, did not have a difficult save to make in only his first Premier League appearance of the season. That would be a fine achievement for Villa if not for the fact that it was already trailing. Villa and McLeish need to find a spark from somewhere.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.