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Teething problems intensify the VAR debate

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It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of VAR or you aren’t. It’s going to happen. Get used to it.

With Video Assistant Referees trialed in English soccer for the first time over the past few weeks during both FA Cup and League Cup games, the debate has intensified around its value and how it should be used.

First off, let’s define exactly when VAR will be used. According to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) guidelines, VAR will only be used to “correct clear errors and for missed serious incidents” which have “match changing” outcomes.

The four areas VAR can be used for are:

  • Goals
  • Penalty kicks
  • Red cards
  • Mistaken identity

It is important to remember that the referee on the pitch is the only one who can sanction whether a video review is necessary after consulting with VAR officials who are watching on monitors and recommend, via an ear piece, if certain instances are worth a second look. The referee can then go and take a look at the incident on a TV monitor on the side of the pitch himself, if necessary, before either keeping his original decision or changing his mind.

So, with all that in mind, why are we still having problems? Number one: fans, players and even managers still seem to be unsure as to exactly how this technology will be used.

Hand gestures making a square TV symbol are now happening in grounds across the UK, trying to suggest to the referee that he needs to go to VAR. Extra pressure is being placed on officials and despite the system being trialed in Major League Soccer, Serie A and the Bundesliga with limited issues over the past 12 months, it seems like the English game is struggling to adapt to the concept even though it will make the life of referees much easier in the long run.

All in all, VAR can slow down the flow of the game but that’s only if huge game changing moments occur multiple times. How often does that really happen? Once or twice, on average, in a single game, if that?

I was one of those so-called purists who wasn’t in favor of the technology to start with, but seeing how easy it can be to rectify mistakes over the past few weeks, I’m all for it now. Kelechi Iheanacho‘s second goal for Leicester in their FA Cup replay win against Fleetwood Town on Tuesday proved how great this can be. Replays showed he was clearly onside and the goal was awarded after initially being ruled out. It took 10-15 seconds without the referee even going to a pitch-side monitor to check it out.

Simple. Easy. Effective.

That goal was an example of a “clear and obvious error” which, per the IFAB guidelines, is why VAR exists. But in Chelsea’s FA Cup win against Norwich City on penalty kicks on Wednesday, there was an incident where VAR was used but didn’t overturn a decision which caused controversy.

Willian was booked by referee Graham Scott for diving in the box, even though replays showed there was clear contact with a defender but VAR officials didn’t believe there was a definitive reason to overturn the initial decision.

Antonio Conte had the following to say about the new technology as he wants it to improve.

“If we want to use a new system, I can’t accept a big mistake,” Conte said. “In this case, the Willian penalty was a big, big mistake. Not from the referee on the pitch, who took quickly a decision to book Willian and didn’t have any doubt, but from the person watching the game [Jones]. I hope the VAR wasn’t a referee because if you see that watching on television and don’t think that’s a penalty … he has to improve. It was very clear.”

Well, Antonio, you may have to accept mistakes, especially at the start, but was that decision really a mistake?

The VAR official may have simply been agreeing with the referee on the pitch that there was contact between Willian and the Norwich defender but that the Chelsea man left his leg hanging out and tried to buy a penalty kick. Even though there’s an extra official looking at video footage of the event, unless he believes the referee has got the decision horribly wrong it will not be overturned.

As for Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who saw the technology used in his sides 0-0 draw at Chelsea last week in the League Cup semifinal first leg, he remains an advocate of VAR and believes this trial run is extremely helpful.

“Will there be some hiccups up at the start? Certainly,” Wenger said. “We have to improve the system, but we have to go for it.”

That is the correct answer here.

It will take time to get used to the technology, just like it did in MLS. But fans, players and coaches need to not only embrace VAR but also educate themselves as to when and how it can be used.

I have no doubt that if the system is introduced into the Premier League for the 2018-19 season it will be hugely beneficial. Largely because the PL have sat back and let the FA trial the system and other leagues around the world work out the kinks. By the time next August rolls around, we will have months of use of VAR at the top level with the 2018 World Cup also set to use the technology.

Look at last weekend in the Premier League. Two key decisions likely changed the outcome of games between clubs battling to stay in the Premier League. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s late equalizer for Watford would have taken all of 10 seconds to review and overturn as he clearly punched the ball into the net against Southampton to seal a 2-2 draw.

While Newcastle’s Mo Diame clearly handled a goalbound effort which not only cost Swansea a penalty kick but would have seen Diame sent off. Both incidents would have been cleared up quickly and easily without minimum fuss.

That is what this system is for. The gray areas of diving and intent with handballs will still exist, just like they did before VAR. But the clear-cut calls which officials can’t see and don’t get right will be overturned when new replays become available to them.

That’s where they need the most help and that’s why VAR should be welcomed into the English game with open arms.

The debates will still rumble on in pubs, stadiums and offices in the UK. The system being trialed to stop those never-ending debates is currently having the opposite effect.

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”