Howard Webb has in recent years earned the title of a big-game referee, and he's had plenty of chances to prove why. The only problem is that he's failed to do so. He was criticized just as much and the Dutch team for the way the World Cup Final went, and his poor form continued into Manchester United's meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford Sunday.
United were firmly in control with a two-goal lead and the Reds were failing to find any creativity when suddenly Jonny Evans conceded a foolish penalty and Steven Gerrard got a goal back for Liverpool. A few minutes later, John O'Shea pulled Fernando Torres down when he was in on goal. Webb saw fit to give the free kick, which Gerrard put away to level the scores, but he only produced a yellow for O'Shea.
Webb might protest that Edwin van der Sar was getting to the ball but Torres would've been there first without O'Shea's interference. Webb has a history of shying away from red cards though, which is why many in the Spanish camp were skeptical when he was appointed to officiate the World Cup Final.
However, Webb's worst decision in this game was choosing not to discipline Nani for his incessant diving. Nani was rolling around for much of the match during tussles with either Paul Konchesky or Daniel Agger. The worst came against the latter when Nani completed flopped in the penalty area with the scores level begging for a foul. Each time it was clear to Webb that there was no foul, yet he let Nani continue. And people wonder why there's so much diving in the today's game.
This summer, Webb became the first man in the middle for both the Champions League Final and World Cup Final in the same year because of his performances in the English Premier League in recent seasons. He did a good job in the former, but last season's Champions League Final produced little drama for him to address. The World Cup Final however was an entirely different story.
Webb handed out a record 14 yellow cards and one red, but few of them made any sense. Nigel de Jong karate kicked Xabi Alonso square in the chest right in front of Webb and escaped with a yellow. Later, Carles Puyol wrapped his arms completely around Arjen Robben on top of being last man and was hardly cautioned. He finally sent off John Heitinga late in added time for a tame second-bookable offense. All-in-all he let the teams play as hard as they wanted, Mark van Bommel in particular, and didn't care how it looked to the world watching.
On a positive note, Webb clearly doesn't fear the players. Plenty of referees shy away from giving cards at all because the players come scream in their ears, but Webb certainly isn't one of those. On the down side, he doesn't perform in the games that count the most.
He commented weeks after the World Cup Final, after replaying the de Jong tackle on Alonso several times and from different angles, he could see it was a red-card offense. The rest of us saw that in real time, no replay necessary.