Manchester City's 2-1 win in their clash with Liverpool on Thursday gave us the right result to keep the title race tight at this stage. Now this is a game that I find very hard as a neutral. City and Liverpool are my least favourite teams (in that order, interestingly, there's a reason!). So my natural reaction would be to hope for a no-score draw, several red cards and a couple of broken legs but that would be immature, wouldn't it? (Quite, I hear you say). So I watched the game riveted as City played a high tempo, physical game - indeed a classic Premier League style game, with almost a derby match feel. Not what you might have expected from a Guardiola team. They prevented Liverpool from getting their high pressing game going and, as a result, Liverpool only showed flashes of their recent imperious form.
As Liverpool were a bit under par arguably the result was right, but I thought City were fortunate to win, as they got the rub of the green with the present state of technology support to referees, in particular with two decisions early in the game while the score was still goal-less.
John Stones's remarkable goal-line clearance, after smashing the ball against his own goalkeeper in panic, might perhaps have been given a goal in the past. As the Sky pundits said, by the naked eye in real time "it looked in". The now well established goal line technology showed Stones was successful by 11mm:
Not only that, as you can see he knocked the ball down as much as out and, in mis-hitting hit, he avoided Mo Salah scoring on the rebound. It was a great bit of play but still fortunate and the currently approved technology ensured the right decision.
However, when Stones hit a poor pass to Vincent Kompany just inside City's half with the score at 0-0 this challenge by Kompany on Salah was so far outside the rules it should have been an automatic red card:
Now keen readers will know I've never been a fan of Kompany's. I've always felt he doesn't actually know how to tackle and this was a fairly typical Kompany challenge such as we have seen many times over the years. Kompany is always a red card waiting to happen and that is exactly what should have happened here as he launched himself off the ground with a straight leading leg and studs showing. It was worthy of the yellow card it received even if he hadn't caught Salah - but he did catch Salah. Former Premier League ref Mark Clattenburg, writing in the Daily Mail, said the lunge was worthy of a red card but excused referee on the night Anthony Taylor noting he did not have the benefit of reviewing the action and "in moments such as this that is sometimes what you need to be 100% sure".
So Clattenburg clearly thinks, as I do, that had VAR been available to the referee Kompany would certainly have walked for the proverbial early bath. The fact that we have goal-line technology but not VAR worked in City's favour.
But it shouldn't have come down to that as, surprisingly, Taylor and Clattenburg both seem to have overlooked another point. Kompany should have been sent off for the foul even if it hadn't been a reckless challenge as Salah would have been clean through on goal and a clear goal scoring opportunity was denied. It's the case that Salah was still 45 yards from the City goal but he's a speed merchant and City defenders Kompany, who had gone to ground, Stones and Laporte would have had no more chance of catching Salah than I would of matching Usain Bolt over 100 metres.
As Liverpool had weathered City's early storm and were on top at that point it is highly unlikely that City would have won with three-quarters of the game still to go. As Martin Samuel put it in the Daily Mail "Was the match better for it? Of course. Was justice done? Probably not".
City were also perhaps fortunate that, also at 0-0, Sadio Mane's shot hit their post full on, while Leroy Sane's shot for City's second found the inside of one post and skidded across the goal and in off the other.
So it was a game of fine margins decided, as so many tight games are, by an inconsistent refereeing decision. "We go once a fortnight and watch 22 men kick a ball around for 90 minutes only for the result to be decided by a random decision by the referee" a Derby season ticket holding chum once said to me at a point 10 years ago when I nearly stopped watching games because of exactly that sort of thing seeming to happening to my team week after week.
Where referee Taylor also went wrong on Thursday was in letting the game flow too much early on after foul tackles. On more than one occasion this led to angry follow on challenges which the referee didn't sanction, bringing play back for the first foul. Referees at all levels have to judge exactly that risk when games look as if they are getting heated. Perhaps Taylor was expecting a contest of silky skills and had gone into the game with a mindset that he would try to let it flow. As a result, in the context of his decisions up to the point of Kompany's challenge, he might have felt a red card was out of keeping with the way he had been reffing the game. But a red card offence is a red card offence at any stage of any game. Like most Premier League refs on the current roster, Taylor showed he isn't up to the level required for a big game. But I accept the level of entertainment provided was high, which probably wouldn't have been the case if he'd got the Kompany decision right.
How important will these tainted three points be for City at the end if the season, I wonder?