It boggles the mind that this issue is still taking up column inches. When Burnley’s Ashley Barnes controlled the ball, under some pressure from Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma, his touch was a wee bit heavy. He knew, in those teetering moments, that he had to make his pass quickly, with the league’s best tackler Nemanja Matic, bearing down on him with ferocious intent. He made the pass with only microseconds to spare, with the Serbian midfielder’s foot flying in to flick the ball away. In fact, Matic got a touch on the ball, redirecting it just after it had left Barnes’s foot. But Matic had intervened in such a way that left his tackling leg occupying the very space that Barnes’s follow-through would soon be filling. The result was a sickening sight; Matic’s shin bending and buckling horribly as Barnes’s foot t-boned into it. His ankle rolled over, his knee warped; it had every ingredient needed for a serious injury. Jose Mourinho called Barnes’ act “criminal”. Matic reacted, understandably to some, with unbridled fury, springing to his feet (to the relief of all the Chelsea fans) and charging at Barnes, shoving him over in a snorting retaliatory display. He was duly sent off for this reprisal, something about which no one should complain. And really, looking at the slow motion replay, was Barnes really at fault? He had already made the pass, and it would surely be too much to expect him to withdraw his foot quickly enough to avoid Matic’s shin. Matic’s leg had come swooping in at such speed, and with the Burnley player’s forward momentum, a collision was inevitable. Barnes walked sheepishly away from the scene of the incident, a sight some have erroneously argued is evidence that he knew he was in trouble, even if referee Martin Atkinson didn’t. Yes, the stud-to-shin contact was awful, but the fact remains that it was Barnes who was making the pass, and Matic the tackle. At best, the question of culpability is blurred.
But for Mourinho, it was as clear as unmuddied lake, and he’s making sure that everyone hears about it. This whole mess went down nearly a week ago, and yet the Chelsea manager is still harping on about it. Matic is set to miss the Capital One Cup final against Tottenham, a heavy blow to be sure, as his absence badly weakens the solidity of Chelsea’s midfield. But whose fault is this? Who wholly earned his red card by letting the bloodlust take control of his judgement? Matic, and only Matic. His exclusion from the final is completely justified, and the protestations from his manager, no matter how voluminous, can’t do a thing about it.
Or can they? Although the final is still out of reach for Matic, Chelsea have managed to appeal to the FA, and have successfully had Matic’s three-match ban reduced by one. But even this didn’t appease Chelsea, with the club stating that they were “extremely disappointed and frustrated” that the regulatory commission had “decided not to reduce Nemanja Matic’s suspension to the maximum extent permitted under FA rules”. Plainly, Mourinho and Chelsea are attempting to twist reality to fit their own narrative. They went on in that statement: “There has been universal condemnation of the reckless challenge made by Ashley Barnes on Matic and it is the club’s view that he has been unjustly punished with a two-match ban for his reaction to a career-threatening tackle”. This so called “universal condemnation” – a doubtful assertion itself – has nothing to do with Matic’s reaction, and the fact that the FA conceded them even a marginally reduced ban sets a dangerous precedent. Are we now to assume that a player who has blatantly and unapologetically committed a violent act on the pitch might now be excused, and the severity of his punishment reduced, simply because they feel they’ve been provoked? How does one measure what is and isn’t sufficient provocation? Was anyone making this argument when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, after the Italian levelled grievous insults about his mother and sister? No, they were not, and the argument is just as inadmissible in this instance.
The hyperbole continues: Mourinho said on Friday that “people all around the world” are sitting at their dining tables, or in their cars, or on their toilets, jaws agape at the fact that Matic can’t play this weekend and Barnes can. Furthermore, Mourinho stated that the Matic incident has brought the credibility of the Premier League into question, making a vague reference to a headline in an “important” Portuguese newspaper as evidence of the league’s diminished standing internationally. These recent tedious expatiations come after Mourinho criticised Sky Sports for repeatedly showing too many damning replays of Diego Costa’s stamp on Emre Can, a piece of violence committed during their Capital One Cup semi final against Liverpool, for which the Spaniard received a three-match retrospective ban. The whole world, it seems to Jose, is against him.
Heading into the tail end of this Premier League campaign, Mourinho obviously thinks he can benefit from creating a siege mentality within the club. The run-in can be an anxious, tremulous time for a team, and an us-against-the-world perspective might serve to steel the nerves and dissuade Chelsea from looking over their shoulders too often. The fines that Mourinho’s antics attract, like the £25,000 fine he was handed in January, don’t seem to discourage the Chelsea manager at all. And what of the FA’s decision? Their statement announcing the reduction of the ban made for oxymoronic reading. They began with this:
“In reaching this decision the members of the regulatory commission rejected the mitigation advanced by Nemanja Matic in respect of the provocation and tackle he received which led to his act of violent conduct. The violent response of Mr Matic to the nature of the tackle cannot be condoned and does not vindicate his subsequent actions.”
Everything seems in order there. But the statement goes on:
“The members of the commission did, however, accept the mitigation in respect of the level of force used by Mr Matic and the nature of the contact he made with Mr Barnes of Burnley FC. Having made those considerations we determined that the standard punishment of a three-match suspension would be clearly excessive and, therefore, ordered that the suspension be reduced to two matches.”
So did the commission accept or reject the mitigation advanced by Matic and Chelsea? And how can Matic’s aggressive shove on Barnes bee seen as anything other than violent conduct? Yes, it was a shove, not a punch or a stomp, but it was still a violent retaliation, in principle the same thing as any other vicious act. Why should anything less than the standard punishment be handed down? The fact that Barnes plays for minnows Burnley, should not be overlooked either. Sean Dyche, a rookie at this level of management, is hopelessly outgunned when it comes to a war of words with Mourinho. Mourinho has relished, and has been rewarded, for being the bully, with Dyche and Burnley his victim.
A frightening idea has been wafted into the equation; that with this, Mourinho has ascended to Alex Ferguson-levels of influence over referees and the FA, perhaps by sheer volume alone. No referee will look forward to being the next to be caught in Mourinho’s crosshairs, and they might well tailor their decisions accordingly, if only subconsciously. One can only imagine what the fallout will be if Chelsea lose the league cup final on Sunday. I’m sure that Jose will have something to say about it.