It seems we can't go a day, let alone a week, without the referee becoming the center of the story -- or at least an integral part of the match. And not in a good way.
To some degree, Arsenal fans have every right to feel angry after they saw their team lose to Barcelona 3-1 on Tuesday (and 4-3 on aggregate) at Camp Nou, sending Barca into the Champions League quarterfinals and the Gunners back home.
After this weekend, when Arsene Wenger's men were victim to two controversial decisions -- including Titus Bramble's foul on Andrei Arshavin in the box that should have been called a penalty -- in a 0-0 draw against Sunderland, the Gunners probably hoped their bad luck was left behind in England. But against Barcelona, referee Massimo Busacca gave Robin van Persie a second yellow card for taking a shot at goal after the whistle blew for offsides. One second after the whistle blew, to be exact. Van Persie didn't pause and smash the ball out of petulance; his action seemed well within the run of play. What's more, the Dutchman claimed he couldn't hear the whistle in the cacophony that was Camp Nou.
Can you give a softer yellow card? Hard to imagine. I mean, there's bad luck, and then there's this.
That said, van Persie had only himself to blame for the first yellow card. He lost his cool in the heated minutes at the end of the first half when he pushed Barcelona's Dani Alves. You can understand van Persie's anger, as only seconds before Eric Abidal had put his hands across the Dutchman's throat as both teams confronted each other. How this wasn't a card-worthy offense, who knows? Busacca seemed to have a clear view of the infraction. But van Persie's foul against Alves was dumb, and gave the Arsenal striker little wiggle room to maneuver for the rest of the game.
Josep Lago/AFP/Getty ImagesEric Abidal confronts Robin van Persie at the end of the first half.
But let's also be fair: Even before RvP was sent to the showers in the 56th minute, Barcelona was the dominant side. It was one-way traffic. Yes, the match devolved into a shooting gallery in the second half, with the Catalans laying siege on Manuel Almunia's goal. But even before that, Arsenal showed no signs of being able to muster the same attack it had at the Emirates. Initially, the Gunners packed it in, abandoning their belief that offense is the best defense (see Leander Schaerlaeckens' analysis).
Ironically, former Barcelona product Cesc Fabregas -- not looking his usual sharp self -- decided to try to out-Barca Barca with a back heel about 20 yards from his own goal. He ended up gifting the ball away, which led to Lionel Messi's first goal seconds before the first half ended.
Aside from a last-ditch Nicklas Bendtner drive on goal, which was broken up by Javier Mascherano in the penalty box, it was the usual beautiful football by Barcelona. Like pinball flippers with their feet, Messi & Co. directed passes with the merest of touches to keep possession and control the tempo.
Arsenal certainly missed the blazing speed of the injured Theo Walcott down the flank. And Howl-munia deserves props for keeping the score 3-1 on the night. With the way Barcelona was attacking a 10-man Arsenal in the second half, it could have easily ended up being a much more lopsided scoreline.
In the end, Barcelona fans will feel the better side won. And Arsenal fans will feel hard-done by with the way a referee's decision has once again played a big role in the Gunners' campaign.