Like Liverpool fans everywhere, I’m still a little ticked off about what transpired at Anfield last Sunday. Two world class goals, two dubious penalty calls and four drama-filled minutes of added time were the highlights of a match that encompassed an emotional roller coaster for the ages – joy, grief, relief, elation, anger – and left two good teams with a share of the spoils.
Let’s be clear: I have no issues with the actual tackles that led to the penalty calls. Regardless of whether Harry Kane left a trailing leg or not, once Loris Karius came bounding out of goal and failed to connect with the ball, any touch on the striker could only have one consequence. As for the second penalty, Virgil van Dijk did try to pull out of his kick, but having seen one particular replay on Monday Night Football, I am convinced that he does connect with the back of Erik Lamela’s leg before the grateful Argentine went down like a man shot.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the right call is made on the pitch and that the referee missing something doesn’t unfairly disadvantage – or advantage – anyone. That, after all, is the main driving force for the recent, gradual, long-called-for introduction of video reviews in the officiating of the game.
But just as important is the process by which the right decision is arrived at, and here lies my first problem with what we witnessed at Anfield on Sunday.
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Let’s take the first penalty and the pitch side conference between referee Jon Moss and assistant Kevin Smart that followed that decision. The bone of contention wasn’t whether Karius had fouled Kane, rather it centred on whether Kane had been in an offside position in the first place – specifically, if a Liverpool player had touched the ball before it arrived at Kane’s feet.
Video replays clearly confirmed two things: First, Kane was in an offside position when Dele Alli passed the ball; second, Dejan Lovren, attempting to clear the ball, touched the ball before it arrived at Kane’s feet. Now, had a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) been involved here, this would have been sorted out in a straightforward manner. But it wasn’t, so it came down to what the officials had seen.
From what we’ve heard of their conversation – caught on TV recordings and subsequently plastered all over social media – neither Moss nor Smart seemed sure that Lovren or any Liverpool player had touched the ball. Smart asked Moss – no touch would have made Kane offside once he touched the ball. The ref had no idea – but proceeded to give a penalty anyway.
It may have been the right decision, but essentially, this was pure guess work by Moss. If he didn’t see a touch, how could he rule Kane onside? Even more pertinent, if Smart didn’t see a touch shouldn’t he have flagged for offside right away? He didn’t, but then summoned the ref over for a discussion. Very odd. I would think the correct process would have been for Smart to raise his flag for offside – as he hadn’t seen the touch – and for Moss to then overrule – if he had seen the touch and considered it deliberate.
Of course, the issue of a deliberate touch and the offside rule raises another debate entirely and this is where I have my second problem. Two former referees of some repute weighed into the matter in the aftermath of Sunday’s game and surprisingly came to different conclusions. Mark Clattenburg concluded that Kane should have been ruled offside because Lovren did not deliberately play the ball towards him, while Dermot Gallagher said Kane was clearly onside because Lovren had made a deliberate attempt to clear the ball.
Clear as mud, right? How can a rule be so unclear that even after the game two professional referees reach different conclusions on the same evidence? In essence, presented with the exact same situation in different matches they would reach opposite conclusions. How are players, managers and fans supposed to respond to that?
I’m not a referee of any sort obviously, but I have to agree with Clattenburg in this case, and for one reason only: had Lovren’s mis-kick bounced through to Karius, I cannot imagine he would have been penalized for picking it up with his hands, because it definitely wouldn’t have been considered a deliberate back pass. Perhaps “deliberate” means one thing for back-passes, and quite another thing for offsides. Heck, it seems “deliberate” already means different things for offsides – depending on who has the whistle.
That Karius then stopped Kane’s penalty should have played down this whole episode – even if questions would have persisted about the offside non-decision. Indeed, the Anfield faithful would have felt justice had been done and recompense paid in full when Mo Salah scored in spectacular fashion in the first minute of added time. But the earlier decision would prove very significant just two minutes later when Spurs won another penalty.
Smart should have flagged again before van Dijk caught Lamela – the Argentine had strayed marginally offside as the ball bounced off Llorente’s head – but he instead convinced Moss to overrule himself and give a penalty he had initially declined. Perhaps he had a better view than the ref – I don’t know – but again, video replays show there was contact.
It was disappointing for Spurs that Kane hadn’t scored earlier, but it was, weirdly enough, the stroke of luck that would ultimately help them secure a point. Liverpool had done their homework on Kane’s penalties, and were well aware of his tendency to go straight down the middle in big games. So as Kane stepped forward for that first kick, Karius knew exactly what to expect and saved the kick.
Usually, a saved penalty puts doubts in the mind of the kicker, but not in this case. Karius’ save meant Kane now knew what Liverpool knew about him, and as he stood waiting to take the second kick, he knew exactly what he had to do. Karius, on the other hand, was now in uncharted territory – he had no idea which way Kane would go and ended up guessing wrong.
We’ll never know, of course, but just imagine: had that last minute penalty been the only one given in this game, Kane would most likely have gone straight down the middle and made an Anfield hero of Karius.
Spurs would look back at that missed penalty and feel that it cost them two points at Anfield. Obviously, had Kane scored that one too they’d have won the game. Yet, perversely, had that first penalty not been given – and missed – there’s a good chance they would have left empty handed.
Good fortune sometimes comes disguised as disappointment.