Fans were nearly robbed of the Champions League final we all wanted. Worse still we were nearly given the one final most likely to make us watch something else that night. So it is a sad feeling to have to credit referees for our good fortune.
While the result would always carry interest, most of us have the sense not to watch another Chelsea-United finale. The FA Cup Final was awful. Last season’s European equivalent was even worse. And it is hard to see why this season’s version might have been different.
I know that will be especially hard for Chelsea fans to read. Manchester United were equally to blame for those finals. But United were always going to outclass a much inferior Arsenal over two legs. Indeed only bad refereeing in the first leg kept that semi-final alive until the start of second, and it died as a competition soon after. So Chelsea had to be sacrificed.
Not that I’m claiming conspiracy against a repeat final. Four overlooked but plausible penalty claims, two of which were actually nailed down certainties, might signal some sort of bias. But I’m not keen on such talk. Instead consider this my cathartic effort to resolve my relief at the result with my displeasure at its manner.
As I say, the Norwegian in the middle last night had four big penalty calls and got at three of them wrong.
I’ll forgive him the first as the foul started outside the box. Besides, I don’t think running into a defender and flopping to the floor in hope of a penalty, even if you have previously been hindered, is the same as being bought down.
And I’ll forgive him the second. Not because it wasn’t a penalty. It definitely was. But I’ll forgive him the second because it was Drogba, and everyone with an ounce of common sense assumes it is a dive when Drogba hits the deck. Refs would simply get far more decisions right than wrong by assuming he’s cheating every time.
That said I can’t forgive him or his linesman for the third. It was a clear handball, and even if I were generous enough to the defence to suggest it was unintentional, it would still be a penalty.
And I won’t forgive him the fourth, which I can only imagine he bottled because it was so late in the game. He had a clear view, an arm went up, it was struck by the ball, and it was in the box. He panicked and Ballack was understandably incensed.
But to overcome conspiracy arguments lets not forget two rather large decisions that went the other way over the two legs.
One was a second awful sending off in two days, which thanks to idiotic Uefa rules will now see two players miss out on deserved cup final places. It was simply not a foul. Anelka ran by Abidal, cut across him, and having broken clear he clumsily tripped himself up rather than running on to score. It was a sad moment that cost Chelsea dear, but not because of the ref.
The other came long before that, and in fact long before kick off. That decision was not to give Barcelona a clear cut penalty when Henry was pulled down as he attempted to shoot in the box. It is easy to forget how much better Barca were in the first leg, and how much they deserved a goal. But that also means it is easy to overlook how easy a second leg they might have had with a 1-0 advantage.
Were Chelsea forced to throw men forward, Barca, like ManU at the Emirates, might have done what they do best. Hit fast and hard on the counter attack and run rampant as a result. We saw that game plan work the night before, and though there is no guarantee the same would have happened last night, it is hard not to draw lessons from watching Barca do just that to so many teams over the course of this season.
So claims of conspiracy, as comforting as they might be for Blues fans this morning, are a little weak to say the least.
Instead we should enjoy the two real moments of absolute class that separated the sides.
Essien and Iniesta are by far and away my favourite two players at the two clubs they play for. They are to my mind their sides’ Paul Scholes – the players without whom the entire team simply functions less well right across the park.
I don’t know exactly what it is about each of them, as different as they are to each other. But to see their influence and class rewarded with two such stunning goals was wonderful.
Essien’s was all about the energy and enthusiasm with which he attacks any ball or space at any stage of any game. And the power of his quickly hit volley was breathtaking.
Iniesta’s was all about his enduring composure. In the dying seconds and with everything riding on one touch, he calmly stood, awaited the ball, picked his spot, and stroked the ball home from the edge of the box. Refusing to be rushed is his trademark.
So hopefully when tempers calm and the replays of ranting players stop, people will remember that Essien and Iniesta gave football two fine moments of inspiration last night.