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Let's give refs discretion, help

Goals on Sunday recaps Sunderland's victory over Fulham.
Goals on Sunday recaps Sunderland's victory over Fulham.
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Warren Barton

Warren Barton draws on 16 years of professional soccer experience as a studio analyst for FOX Soccer. With more than 350 Barclays Premier League appearances, Barton starred for Wimbledon before rising to prominence with Newcastle United and the England national team. Follow him on Twitter.

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We have a really interesting week of Premier League football in the books, and where else can we start but with Manchester City?

They moved top of the table after a real thumping of Aston Villa. Both Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero looked phenomenal in the game and at the end of the round, City are above their cross-town neighbors and have still not lost a game – while United have lost three. That gives City a good cushion and will put them into a fine frame of mind ahead of what I expect will be a great game on FOX Soccer this Wednesday against Real Madrid. There were two things that I thought telling in this game. The first was the absence of Mario Balotelli. He perhaps is one distraction too much, and City looked very nimble without him. The second was that there were a few dubious calls in the game, and City got them. Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have. That shows you also how far they have come.

As for United: a lot of folks are saying that Sir Alex’s men had a poor game, but I think this is one of those times when the credit really should go to the home team. Norwich played a superb game and John Ruddy, behind Michael Turner and Sebastien Bassong, had another magnificent outing. People will point to Wayne Rooney being absent; I think people should recognize that this is why United bought Robin van Persie. United also had a strong team out there: Valencia, Ashley Young, and an in-form Chicharito were all deployed. Sometimes, the team you play is just better on the night, as Sir Alex acknowledged. All credit to Chris Hughton, who is one of the genuine good guys in this game.

Another man who deserves a lot of credit this weekend is Steve Clarke. I played against him for many years and he was Ruud Gullit’s assistant when I was at Newcastle. He’s learned from some of the best – Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish – and it shows. When they beat Liverpool earlier in the season, I thought Clarke had got things right for WBA, and let’s be honest, his teaming of Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long would give anyone problems.

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But if I’m Chelsea, I’m starting to get concerned. They have now not collected a win in their last four league games, and the lack of squad rotation is hurting them badly. They will need reinforcements in the winter window. I also think Fernando Torres’ time is up there. Every game looks a grind for him, and the body language suggests he is in a bad place. I would not be surprised if he is moved on in exchange for Falcao as the rumors have it.

Quickly, we need to talk about the red cards this weekend. Both were right by the letter of the law, but one I thought was dead on, and the other, for me, illustrates why referees need a little leeway.

One thing most fans don’t know is that referees have an assessor in the stands for every game. Every decision they make is not only judged by the players, the fans, the coaches and us in media, but by a man with the power to take him off the field for the next week. It’s a massive amount of pressure to heap on one man and I think that’s why sometimes referees err on the side of the book, rather than on giving a man the benefit of the doubt.

At the Emirates, Emmanuel Adebayor’s tackle was a straight red in any era. It was dangerous, reckless and stupid – and it cost his team the game. (I was shocked that Andre Villas-Boas claimed afterwards that his Spurs were the better team – sometimes you have to just hold your hand up.) Before that card, Spurs had Arsenal on the ropes; after that Lukas Podolski and Giroud exploited the gaps and they’ll be brimming with confidence.

But at Craven Cottage, I thought discretion would have been better. You know the players, and there is a difference when a guy is trying to protect himself and when he’s out to injure. Brede Hangeland knows that the man he tackled, Lee Cattermole, wasn’t going to pull out of the challenge. He also knew that he was facing a full-blooded challenge of his own. A lot of decisions go through your mind in that split-second, and I think Hangeland was trying to protect himself. He wasn’t trying to hurt Cattermole, and didn’t – and you could see the Sunderland man acknowledge that. But the type of tackle and the way the rules are read these days left the ref no option. That’s a case where the ref could have had a bit of help, and a quick chat and a yellow would have sufficed.

We’ve got a big week of Champions League play coming up, but I want to end with something a bit closer to home. My son’s team, the Manchester Soccer club in San Diego, won their division in AAA and now move up to face the big boys in the Premier League. So to Kane and all the boys: congratulations from all of us at FOX Soccer! I’ll see you on Tuesday and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @warrenbarton2.

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