By Andrew Warshaw
March 7 – When the great and the good of UEFA, accused of being behind the times, finally gave the green light for the video assistant referee system to be used in the knockout stages of their most prestigious competition, they could hardly have anticipated the furore that exploded in Paris and, to a lesser extent, Portugal, on Wednesday night.
Both Paris St Germain and Roma were knocked out of the competition in the last 16 following VAR reviews in circumstances so controversial that, far from bringing clarity to the game, only served to question whether commonsense should still prevail in most cases.
Take nothing away from Manchester United’s landmark achievement in becoming the first team in the competition’s history to wipe out a two-goal home first-leg deficit. Or from United caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who famously scored a late winner for United in the 1999 final.
The togetherness and never-say-die spirit of United was immense and of all the Champions League games so far this season, this was by far the most praiseworthy effort given that United had no fewer than 10 players out against one of the most fearsome line-ups in Europe.
“It’s a typical Manchester United night. We had a game plan and the belief in the boys was what we hoped for. Everyone shares a huge pride,” said Solskjaer after his side added to what in France has been labelled the Champions League “curse” of PSG, who for all their resources have yet to win the tournament.
“The players were really great. They were focused, they listened to all the instructions like in training, and on the pitch they knew that we had to defend well. There was a lot of quality.”
Yet until Marcus Rashford struck an injury-time penalty for a 3-1 win and a quarterfinal place on the away goals rule, United were going out of the competition. Instead, having relied on costly errors by the home team, they capitalised on the most decisive one of all when French defender Presnel Kimpembe jumped to block a hopeful shot from Diogo Dalot.
With his back turned and no attempt to play the ball with his arm, you could argue most officials would not have given it. But after initially awarding a corner, the referee went to VAR and came back with a ruling that stunned PSG and gave United a last-ditch lifeline.
Of course Rashford still had to score the penalty – and did so with aplomb under severe pressure – but the ruling prompted an outpouring of raged debate and served only to increase the sense of confusion over whether the rules had been applied properly.
Ironically FIFA last weekend attempted to clarify deliberate handball by outlawing the concept of “accidental” contact in a goal-scoring situation. But the new law only applies from July.
Shortly after the full-time whistle in Paris, Neymar took to Instagram to slam the match officials. “This is a disgrace, they put four people that know nothing about football in charge of looking at the replay for VAR,” he charged.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel said he still supported VAR but added: “Some say no when others say yes, that’s the difficulty with handball. The shot is wide, and then suddenly it’s a penalty.”
Tuchel also denied that PSG’s exit, after having won the first leg 2-0 at Old Trafford, was another example of their notorious mental frailty, exemplified in 2017 when they blew a 4-1 first-leg lead to lose 6-5 on aggregate to Barcelona.
“We had complete domination of the ball, had a lot of chances, and were not under pressure or in danger of any counter-attacks. If you have an opponent who is clearly better than you, then ok, you have something to analyse. But today it is horrible, and we didn’t deserve to go out over 180 minutes.”
The same sense of anguish and perceived glaring inconsistency was felt by Roma who were eliminated 4-3 on aggregate in the dying minutes of extra time against Porto.
This time VAR was used to adjudge that Alessandro Florenzi had pulled Fernando’s shirt yet before full-time Patrik Schick appeared to be caught by Moussa Marega in the Porto box only for the referee to refuse to go to the VAR monitor.
“Last year we asked for VAR in the Champions League because we got screwed in the semi-final and tonight, they’ve got VAR and we still get robbed, “ charged Roma president James Pallotta . “I’m tired of this crap. I give up.”
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