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By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
It’s probably fair to say that Russia 2018 will probably always be remembered as the VAR World Cup. Every major decision is being scrutinised by a panel, who advise the referee on matters such as whether a goal is offside or if a foul has been committed. On occasion, the referee will take a look at the incident in question to judge for himself. Because of this new technological advance in the game, the so-called “bigger” teams have not enjoyed the benefit of the doubt that they would have had in the past.
It has taken a long time for VAR to be approved by FIFA, and it makes you wonder how the course of football history might have been different had it be put in place ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago. This following article looks at some Manchester United matches from the past, and certain games in which VAR would have helped, or hindered, the Red Devils.
Video Assistant Referees (to give VAR its full title) have been threatening to make their way into the game for several years. It was trialled for the first time in the USA in 2016, in a reserve match between two MLS sides. In December that year, it was used during the FIFA Club World Cup final between Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers.
VAR made its debut in England in January 2018, during an FA Cup tie between Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace. In March that year, it was finally written into the Laws of the Game, ahead of the World Cup finals in Russia. The reaction to VAR has so far been quite positive, despite the fact that it usually adds at least a couple of minutes onto most games.
So how different would Manchester United’s history, as well as that of certain other clubs, have been had VAR been around 20 years ago?
1998-99 F.A. Cup Semi-Final, United vs Arsenal
On any list or video compilation of Manchester United’s greatest goals, you will see the one where Ryan Giggs dribbled past half of the Arsenal team, slammed it past David Seaman and then showed the world exactly how hairy his chest was during his celebration. On these lists, that goal will usually be right at the top of it, not only for how fantastic a strike it was, but also because of the occasion, and how it set United up for their big crack at the Treble. Had VAR been in place back then, however, that goal would probably not have happened. The simple reason for this is that the match itself would not have taken place.
What many people forget is that the match in which that goal took place was actually a Replay. The original fixture had been played a few days earlier and had finished in a 0-0 draw. The most memorable thing about that game was that Roy Keane had what looked like a perfectly good goal disallowed, due to the fact that Dwight Yorke was in an offside position. Despite the fact that he was nowhere near the ball when it happened, David Elleray ruled that he was ‘encroaching’ and the goal was chalked off. It is hard to imagine that a VAR Panel wouldn’t have overruled that decision, or at least made Elleray take a second look at it. The likelihood is that the goal would have stood, and United would have been through to the F.A. Cup Final at the first time of asking, rather than having to play a further 120 minutes.
If all other results had gone the same way as they did, it wouldn’t have made any difference to United’s season in terms of trophies. United would have still played the final, albeit having played one game less. Whether the season would have ended in the same iconic fashion, however, is impossible to say. Giggs’ goal must have given the whole squad a massive boost, especially as it saw off their main rivals for trophies at that time. The course of United’s season probably didn’t alter as a result of Elleray’s decision. Had VAR been around at the time, and Keane’s goal in the original fixture had been counted, it would have robbed United fans of one of the most memorable moments from their best ever season.
2003-04 Champions League Last 16, United vs Porto
One of the biggest criticisms of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign is his failure to capture club football’s biggest trophy on more than two occasions. There have been quite a few instances over the years where United fans have, not unreasonably, thought “we should have won it that year”. The 2003-04 season sticks out as one of those, for several reasons. Firstly, the majority of the so-called “big” clubs were eliminated from the competition far earlier than expected. Inter, Lazio & Marseille didn’t survive the group stage. Bayern Munich and Juventus were knocked out in the last 16. AC Milan and Real Madrid went out in the quarter-finals. Even more surprisingly, Barcelona didn’t even qualify for the competition due to finishing 6th in La Liga the previous season.
After losing the first leg 2-1 in Portugal, United took an early lead through Paul Scholes. This put the Red Devils ahead on away goals, and before half time, Scholes once again put the ball into the net. This time, his strike was ruled to be offside, a decision that replays later showed to be incorrect. Try as they did, United could not force another goal, but still had the advantage of their away goal going into injury time, until disaster struck. When goalkeeper Tim Howard fumbled what looked like a routine free kick, Costinha tucked away the rebound to put Porto back ahead. This prompted current United manager José Mourinho’s now infamous celebration running down the touchline.
As the Reds searched for that elusive second goal, desperation began to set in. This probably wouldn’t have happened had United already been comfortably in front. It’s also fair to say that they might have at least one more Champions League trophy in their cabinet. Porto went onto beat Lyon in the quarter-final, and Deportivo de La Coruña in the semi-final before thrashing Monaco in the final. All of those were good sides, but United still would have fancied their chances against any of them.
The impact of the goal that was disallowed don’t just involve United, it probably changed Mourinho’s entire future. It is hard to imagine Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich noticing a manager who had been knocked out of the Champions League in the last 16, even taking into account his UEFA Cup triumph the previous year.
The long, trophy-laden career Mourinho has had may not have come to fruition had Scholes’ goal been allowed. It seems it all fell into place at the right time. He probably wouldn’t be the current manager at Old Trafford, and both United and Chelsea’s recent history would probably have been quite different.
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2008-09 Champions League Semi-Finals
An interesting case due to the fact that if VAR had been around 10 years, not only might United have had a different line up in the 2009 Champions League Final, they probably would have had different opponents.
In the semi-finals, holders United were drawn against Arsenal, while Chelsea were pitted against Barcelona. The Red Devils comfortably disposed of Arsenal 4-1 on aggregate but were reduced to ten men when Darren Fletcher was sent off for a challenge on Cesc Fàbregas which resulted in an Arsenal penalty. Replays later showed that Fletcher got a clean foot on the ball and had actually made a fantastic challenge. Unlike in the Premier League, red cards issued in the Champions League cannot be overturned retrospectively, which meant that Fletcher missed the final in Rome.
In the other semi-final, Chelsea had drawn 0-0 in the Nou Camp and they took an early lead through Michael Essien in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Over the course of the game, Chelsea had four appeals for a penalty turned down. Replays showed that at least three of these should have been given. Chelsea’s misery was compounded in the 93rd minute when Andrés Iniesta struck to send the Catalans through on away goals. Didier Drogba’s rant after the full-time whistle seems perfectly justified looking back.
The difference that VAR would have made to the circumstances of these events is immense. United were overwhelmed in Rome by Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, and without a specialist defensive midfielder to break up their play they were given free reign. Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Anderson (who according to Ferguson, only made three passes in the whole game). United’s entire team didn’t perform that night, apart from the first ten minutes. Nobody is saying that Fletcher is a better player than Xavi, Iniesta or Busquets, but he is the sort of midfielder they didn’t come up against very often - a player who will put their foot in, give you a bit of kick. Having someone like Fletcher in the midfield have changed United’s entire approach to the game. This wasn’t the 2011 team, after all. It was Pep Guardiola’s first season, and his side were very lucky to have got past Chelsea.
The 2009 Champions League Final should have been a repeat of Moscow the previous year. This was something many United fans feared at the time, and they were relieved to avoid Chelsea a second time. This was highlighted even further by how poor Barcelona had been at Stamford Bridge. How a rematch between United and Chelsea might have gone is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain, had VAR been around in the 2008-09 season, either United or Chelsea would have another Champions League triumph to their name – and Barcelona would have one less.
2009-10 – Premier League, United vs Chelsea
This is one game where VAR may have altered the entire Premier League title race. In the 2009-10 season, United were aiming to become the first team in English football to win four league titles in a row. As had been the case for much of the previous six or seven years, Chelsea were United’s only title rivals. Both clubs had been leapfrogging each other at the top for weeks and going into the game at Old Trafford on 3rd April 2010, United led the table.
Chelsea struck in the first half through Joe Cole, but it was the second goal by Drogba which killed the game as a contest. The Ivorian striker was a yard offside when he raced clear, smashing home what proved to be the winner. A VAR Panel would have ruled that goal out without question, as whatever angle you view it from it is so blatantly obvious that it is amazing that none of the officials spotted it. There was a touch of controversy about the goal United pulled back through Federico Macheda, with a question of whether he handballed it into the net. Nani drilled in a cross from the left, which Petr Cech fumbled. The ball bounced up towards the chest of Macheda, which is where his hands were. His body movement suggests he may have pushed the ball into the net, but it would have been hard for him to get his hands out of the way with the ball coming to him at that speed. The ball would most likely have gone into the net whether his hands were on his chest or not.
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One thing is for certain, a VAR panel would definitely have ruled out Drogba’s goal, but it is hard to say what they would have done about Macheda’s. Assuming that Macheda’s would have stood then the game would have ended in a 1-1 draw. Given how the rest of the season’s results went, this result would have ensured that United finished a point ahead of Chelsea, rather than one behind. Effectively, United would now have 21 titles, and because they won the Premier League the following season, would have won five in a row.
2012-13 Champions League, United vs Real Madrid
Alex Ferguson’s last chance to conquer Europe was dealt a major blow by a decision that it seems hard to believe a VAR panel would have upheld. In the last 16 of the competition, United held Real Madrid to a creditable 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, setting them up nicely with an away goal going into the return leg.
United took the lead at Old Trafford, when the impressive Nani forced Sergio Ramos to turn the ball into his own net. The Red Devils looked good value for that lead but a controversial decision by referee Cüneyt Çakır turned the whole tie on its head. Both Nani and Real defender Alvaro Arbeloa went for a high ball, but the Portuguese winger mistimed his challenge. He caught Arbeloa in the chest, while injuring himself slightly in the process. The referee quite rightly called a foul, but when Nani got up he was astonished to be shown the red card. What happened next was that Real hit two goals within the next 15 minutes which saw United go out of the competition.
While Ferguson’s men were trying to compose themselves after being reduced to ten men, Luka Modrić and Cristiano Ronaldo struck, meaning that United had to find two goals in twenty minutes while being a man down. This proved too much for the Red Devils, and Ferguson’s last Champions League campaign ended in bitter disappointment. So incensed was the manager, that he sent his assistant Mike Phelan to conduct his post-match interview. His reaction was understandable as, although Nani’s challenge was high, both players’ eyes were on the ball. It was a foul, but it wasn’t a malicious challenge, deserving of no more than a yellow card.
The result of the referee’s decision completely destroyed the momentum that United had, as they had been comfortable up to that point, even before they took the lead. Madrid didn’t seem to be getting back into it. With the quality they had in their side, there is no reason they couldn’t have overturned, even if United had had 11 men on the pitch but the Reds were in total control before the sending off.
So whether or not United would have kept their lead had Nani only been shown a yellow is debatable, but Fergusons anger was completely understandable. A harsh decision, one which seems unlikely to have been given had VAR been in force, robbed United’s manager of his final chance to win the Champions League.
There are plenty of other games that VAR might have altered over the years, but the five listed here are ones where it might have altered United’s history. Ryan Giggs’ goal against Arsenal wouldn’t have happened because no replay would have taken place. Darren Fletcher wouldn’t have missed the 2009 Champions League Final, and United would have most likely had different opponents. The 2010 Premier League title might have also gone to United, and their 2004 & 2013 Champions League campaigns might also have lasted a bit longer.
Had VAR been in place during the last twenty years, there is no doubt that United would have benefitted in certain situations, but it is also fair to say that some of their opponents would as well. Part 2 of this article will look at the ones United got away with, and that would have been different had VAR been introduced years ago.
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Added by Philip Meese on 09/07/2018 20:29:05