CL Special: Blue Or Blau - Did The Referee Ruin Chelsea-Barcelona?

A titanic tie of two wondergoals will unfortunately instead be remembered for the controversial officiating from Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.'s Peter Staunton sifts through the wreckage to determine what he got right, and what he got wrong...
Tom Henning Ovrebo was under no illusion that Daniel Alves fouled the lively Florent Malouda in the opening stages of last night's Champions League semi-final.

The Frenchman had pulled the ball from the sky and roasted the full-back for pace and power. He tried to pull back as he reached the white lines and was forced to hit the deck by the Brazilian.

Malouda was three yards inside the Barca penalty area by the time significant contact was made, but the Norwegian referee insisted a free kick and nothing more should be the outcome, much to the exasperation of the Chelsea number.

It was an incident entirely in-keeping with an uneven performance from an official with both big game experience and big game uncertainties behind him.

Ask the Italians.

It was Ovrebo who denied Luca Toni a legitimate goal against Romania in the European Championships last summer. It was Ovrebo who admitted that mistake. It was Ovrebo who was omitted by UEFA from the referee's list for the rest of the tournament.

What, then, has the Norwegian psychologist done since to atone for his error and merit a place in charge of one of the most vitriolic fixtures in the European game? One that has prompted two sending-offs in recent times and a death threat against Anders Frisk, one of the game's greatest matchday officials.

Maybe Ovrebo is the top referee in the Tippeligaen. But a fixture such as this demands an official who is used to having the world's best players charge around like rutting stags demanding decisions be given. It requires an official who is accustomed to awarding life-or-death penalty kicks on a weekly basis in games which have millions of euros riding on them.

UEFA placed Roberto Rosetti, Serie A's top man, in charge of the first semi-final between Arsenal and Manchester United, but saw fit to award the second game to a referee with a patchy track record in decisive encounters and from a league ranked directly below Switzerland and Bulgaria in the UEFA country ranking list.

Was there, as some have suggested, an ulterior, even sinister motive on the part of European football's governing body? Did they insert a malleable official under the orders to deny the Premier League two representatives in the Champions League final for the second year running? Conspiracy theories will have to remain exactly that. But Ovrebo certainly invited inquisition with the nature of his showing last night.

Never before at this stage of the competition has a referee's input had such a bearing on the result. Officials have missed a handball or a deliberate trip here and there in the past, but here were three, possibly four, penalty decisions that should have been given to Chelsea. Also, Barcelona will feel aggrieved to have lost Eric Abidal for doing little more than prompting Nicolas Anelka to trip himself.

Didier Drogba's reputation, like Cristiano Ronaldo's, now goes before him. When the Ivorian tumbles in the box, justifiably or otherwise, it is immediately perceived as an act of simulation rather than a foul. No doubt however, that Drogba was fouled in the 26th minute by Abidal at Stamford Bridge as he bore down on goal.

Examine Gerard Pique's handball as the game was closing out. No doubt the ball struck the outstretched hand of the former Manchester United player, even if it was more ball-to-hand than hand-to-ball. However, these decisions are given more often than not.

In the last minute, an incident occurred that prompted the captain of Germany to harangue the official like never before, perhaps more out of hope than expectation. Chelsea's No.13 may not have even been on the pitch had he received a second booking for a foul on Thierry Henry last week. Michael Ballack's last-gasp volley hit the body of Samuel Eto'o, somewhere in the region of back, shoulder and upper arm, but close enough to the hand for Chelsea to feel they had been denied a fourth spot-kick on the night.

Guus Hiddink's team should have had at least one penalty against Barcelona, and the reasons that Tom Henning Ovrebo offers for not doing so will be intriguing to hear and read. The pressure, and indeed the consequence, of offering such decisions in a game of this magnitude may have been too significant for Ovrebo, who would rather not incur controversy for an iffy penalty shout. In his indecisiveness, it would seem he has done the exact opposite.

The sense of injustice that he roused in the Pensioners, Ballack and Drogba in particular, will mean that Chelsea will never admit to being eliminated by Barcelona; they will eternally feel that they were dumped out by Tom Henning Ovrebo.

A club that have been tarred and feathered with the charge of sore losers, Chelsea must also examine the behaviour of their own contingent in the context of the result, however. Sure, things went against them, but to harass the official on the pitch after the final whistle is cause for UEFA to throw the book at the London side. A poor performance from an official is no excuse to lower the entire football club to deplorable standards of etiquette.

Peter Staunton,