O’Neill laments ref as United’s class shines through

Milner (pen) 5

Owen 12, Rooney 74

Aston Villa will have left Wembley yesterday evening bitterly disappointed with their loss in the Carling Cup final with the mood in the camp one of injustice. In his post match interview Martin O’Neill has been unequivocal in his condemnation of referee Phil Dowd’s decision not to send off Nemanja Vidic.

It is a universally accepted law of the game that when a player denies a member of the opposition a goalscoring chance he should be sent from the field of play. The only real note of contention that is often involved with this rule is the notion of a covering player who may have been able to put in a last minute block and deny the player his chance in a legal fashion. It would be a huge leap of faith for it to be alleged that Patrice Evra could have fulfilled this role. In truth the Frenchman was too far from the action and despite his pace would have been powerless to stop Gabriel Agbonlahor testing Tomasz Kuszczak. Even if Dowd had felt that Evra was in fact a covering player the usual course of action would have been to caution Vidic. To allow the Serbian to escape without punishment seems a staggering decision.

There is a school of thought that consideration should be given to the occasion and that referees are often reluctant to dismiss a player in the opening stages of a Wembley final – finding his team behind on the scoresheet is regarded as punishment enough. This law should, however, be a strict liability offence – if a player is denied a goalscoring opportunity, the offending player should be sent off regardless of any other factors. Villa will certainly feel that United going behind was not punishment enough for Vidic especially considering the Serbian’s vital block on an Emile Heskey header late on in the encounter.

O’Neill will not only be disappointed in the decision of Dowd with his team’s lack of ability to capitalise on their early lead not escaping the attention of the former Celtic boss. Villa started the game in strong fashion penetrating down United’s flanks giving the early impression that both Stewart Downing and Ashley Young were in the mood for giving their respective full-backs a torrid afternoon. Following this early pressure, however, it was the United wide men who proved pivotal. Antonio Valencia was able to capitalise on his recent form in providing yet another assist for Wayne Rooney. Rooney’s recent found heading ability is in no small part down to the delivery of Valencia with the Ecuadorian consistently looking for the England man when receiving the ball in wide areas. On the United left flank Ji-Sung Park was able to drift inside unmarked throughout the match providing the ideal link between the midfield and attack. When Rooney was introduced the striker at times drifted wide enabling Park to slide inside undetected – this tactic has already proved fruitful for United recently in the San Siro and looks set to continue.

Mention should also go to the other United forwards Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen who linked up extremely well in the first half culminating in the equalising goal. Owen took his goal in customary fashion but his link up play was also impressive – something which he has struggled with during his time at United. Berbatov not only grabbed United’s lifeline to get back into the game but his hold up play and movement in the second half was fantastic.

The Villa manager may have felt that the decisive moment of the match came after five minutes but in reality it came once United were able to gain possession relying on the movement and ability of their forward players – something which Villa just weren’t able to match on the day.

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