Football is a game of inches. That was evident throughout the second leg of Thursday's Europa League semifinal between Juventus and Benfica.
Had Kwadwo Asamoah's cross in the first minute of first-half stoppage time been six inches farther ahead of Arturo Vidal, the Chilean could have powered his header past Jan Oblak instead of craning his neck to bounce it into the ground and see Luisao desperately clear the ball off the line. Three minutes earlier, a flick on from an Andrea Pirlo free-kick evaded Carlos Tevez's boot by the slightest of gaps. Pirlo's swerving 30-yard free-kick just after the hour just didn't knuckle enough to get by Oblak. Martin Caceres' header from a last-gasp corner was just too close to the Slovenian keeper to get by.
Most glaringly, Stephan Lichtsteiner's mishandling of a ball from Claudio Marchisio in the 80th minute when it looked easier to score could have changed the game and sent Juve to the final.
Yes, fate was a fickle lover for the Old Lady of Italian football Thursday night. The Bianconeri controlled the game and played like lions, but even at 10 and then nine men, Benfica could not be broken. If a team has to go out at this stage, that is the way fans want to see it.
There was, however, one element that did not live up to the quality of the game: the officiating.
I am not one who normally squeals about being hard-done by the officials. Having officiated sports games myself as a baseball umpire, I understand how difficult it is to do these things, especially at the highest levels of a fast-paced sport. But the way Mark Clattenburg handled Thursday's match was dreadful.
The Englishman is one of the more respected officials in the English Premier League, but he and his crew missed at least three legitimate penalty appeals from the hosts. The first came early in the first half after Paul Pogba was brought down in the box with the defender nowhere near the ball. The next two came on the same play, when Fernando Llorente was undercut while going up for a header and a Benfica defender handled the ensuing deflection.
Of course, judgement calls can always be criticized with the benefits of hindsight and six replay angles. One gets angry but eventually can forgive.
But Clattenburg's inability to deal with Benfica's time-wasting, especially in the late stages of the game, cannot be forgiven. He started chastising Oblak for slow play early in the game but did nothing substantial to speed things up when the Portuguese side began moving at a walking pace.
By the end of 90 minutes, it was taking 20 to 30 seconds for Benfica players to take throw-ins. Lazar Markovic took the better part of two minutes late on to be helped off the field by the training staff, but he was obviously sprightly enough to get into a fight with Mirko Vucinic on the touchline less than three minutes after he was withdrawn.
The only trick Benfica didn't pull was the shameful faked injury Brazilian defender Erika was guilty of in the 2011 Women's World Cup against the United States.
By the time Clattenburg was done sorting out the touchline fracas between Vucinic and Markovic and the legitimate injury suffered by Ezequiel Garay, it's arguable that at least 10 minutes should have been added to the game. The initial number on the board was six—a number likely sent in before so much time was lost due to those incidents—but to stop at eight was still not going far enough.
Simply put, his management of Benfica's blatant time-wasting and his subsequent management of stoppage time were, at best, subpar.
Clattenburg's performance was not the reason Juve did not go through to the final, but it certainly did not help—especially when Arturo Vidal could easily have stepped up to the spot more than once. His future European appointments should be selected with care—and maybe shouldn't be at such advanced stages.
In the end, heartbreaking as it was for Juve's fans, their team couldn't break Benfica down in either leg and paid for it. The team can now build for next year's European campaigns and hope to finally break through in the last phase of their post-Calciopoli rebuild—and fans will hope that they are much happier.
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