For most of Sunday’s Manchester derby it looked as though referee Michael Oliver felt sorry for slumping and short-handed Manchester United.
Oliver quickly lost the plot in the much-anticipated English Premier League clash after correctly dismissing United defender Chris Smalling in the 38th minute for his reckless tackle to the left of the visitors penalty area on an onrushing James Milner.
Had the Citizens not recorded a narrow 1-0 victory, the Sky Blues would have made a bigger issue of being short changed by Oliver on what seemed certain to be five clear-cut penalties along with allegations of an ugly spitting incident by United’s Marouane Fellaini.
Initially the referee appeared to have sympathy for City, as Oliver failed to caution goalkeeper Joe Hart in the 31st minute.
The English international wildly raced out of his goal to protest a foul by Smalling. Smalling had raised his boot to block Hart’s down-field punt and Hart completely lost his self control.
The enraged netminder went face-to-face with Oliver making body contact and then appearing to headbutt the referee.
Just why Oliver failed to caution Hart or point to the spot on all five blatant penalty kick incidents remains a mystery.
Maybe he was concussed after going head-to-head with Hart. Maybe he was just trying to cover the point spread?
But no, really there was no reason for Oliver to even things up or show sympathy for United since until late in the second half the 29-year-old referee from Northumberland was having a solid outing which was good enough to draw the praise of match commentators.
Oliver’s performance worsened in the dying minutes of first half injury time when Oliver denied City’s Yaya Toure an obvious penalty kick after the midfielder had his legs taken out from behind by United defender Marcos Rojo.
The reaction from City and even neutral observers as they headed to the break was one of bewilderment.
There was more controversy to come.
Early in the second half as City still pressed for the opening goal, United’s Michael Carrick and Fellaini both blocked goal-ward shots by City with Oliver again waving play on.
Oliver also chose not to award another City penalty kick again in the 50th minute when a tracking-back Wayne Rooney took Toure down in the box from behind.
Then in the 60th minute, the kicker, Sergio Aguero was brought down in the United penalty area by Fellaini, but again for some reason Oliver again chose not to award the penalty kick and obvious booking.
Moments after that incident it also emerged that Fellaini was involved in a spitting incident with City forward Aguero.
Most of us saw Fellaini standing over Aguero to get up, in an effort to legitimize his poorly timed tackle, but match photos later revealed Fellaini spitting on his opponent.
Fellaini later denied the incident with a Twitter post saying the reports were fabricated while it was also announced that football officials would not investigate the incident.
Had the match been played later in the season the cries of derision from those at The City of Manchester Stadium would have been much worse and Oliver’s performance would have made much bigger headlines.
It begs the question whether Oliver should continue to be assigned to high-profile matches as the race for the Barclay’s Premier League title begins to heat up.
Only time will tell if the F.A. referee think tank, which is headed by former referee Howard Webb, agrees and decides to re-evaluate its referee assignments for future matches.
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