Too often the big European nights are blighted by the fans' pet hate—fussy officials apparently more intent on the pertness of their posture than the good of the game.
Admittedly, as an Englishman, an acolyte of the Premier League, and a scything centre-half himself, this writer's viewpoint may be steadfastly Anglo-Saxon. Yet, I was highly impressed by the referee's no-nonsense approach at Camp Nou this evening.
Wolfgang Stark was in no mood for play-acting on a night when tensions ran high and Chelsea's discipline and desire in sometimes desperate defence turned the tie into a test of character for both sides.
The dazzling attacking brio of Barcelona's rampaging right-back Dani Alves had been touted before the game as likely to stretch out-of-position Jose Bosingwa to the limit, and so it proved. But the Brazilian spent as much time on the deck as on the overlap.
Eat your heart out, Emmanuel Eboue.
However, Stark was having none of it, repeatedly allowing play to continue while Alves and Didier Drogba—thankfully well-beaten in the dying swan stakes this time around— writhed on the ground like extras in a Quentin Tarantino film.
It was noticeable that both players were usually quick to regain their footing when their own side regained possession, adding credence to the suspicion that their antics owed more to thwarted ambition than real pain.
The contrast between tough Barcelona defender Marquez, who even with what looked like serious ligament damage hopped doggedly after the ball to put it out of play, and his compatriot Alves, twitching and grimacing like a pantomime villain, was telling, and the referee seemed confident in his ability to distinguish between the two.
The image of the German with hands outstretched towards the ball, signalling to the two sets of players to play on, became a recurring theme in an absorbing contest.
By and large he was spot on.
Play was immediately halted when Thierry Henry was taken out by a robust challenge from Alex—out cold briefly, judging by television pictures—and again when Marquez staggered and collapsed in agony.
Drogba's recumbent interpretive dance was largely ignored, although he should have been given the benefit of the doubt when he went down clutching his head in his own penalty area as the Catalan side continued to manoeuvre the ball around his prone form.
Head injuries, feigned or real, should always be attended to immediately according to the laws of the game, and rightly so.
However, Stark was certainly not afraid to penalise genuine offences, giving Bosingwa a stern talking-to and brandishing yellow cards after rash or cynical lunges from Chelsea's Alex and Michael Ballack early on.
Yaya Toure also chose the wrong man to mess with when he overzealously demanded a booking only to receive one himself for unsporting behaviour. If only all wielders of the whistle would do likewise the scourge of the imaginary card could quickly be eradicated.
Such was the official's authority that even his only glaring mistake, adjudging Henry to have fallen of his own accord as Bosingwa tugged his shoulder on the turn near the penalty spot, prompted little of the mass protests that have resisted even the recent "Respect" campaign.
Amid the partisan cacophony of whistles from over 92,000 frustrated Catalan supporters, it took a strong man to hold his own alone in the middle, but Stark showed an icy streak to ensure that football more than held its own.
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