Football: Prospects of success hidden in the cards

Premiership pressures: Pursuit of the championship under stricter refereeing is taking its toll
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MARK LAWRENSON, the former Liverpool player now a media pundit, recalls taking over as manager of Oxford United late in the season and discovering his centre-halves had a brace of bookings between them. "That's when I knew we were in trouble," he said.

Lawrenson was a cultured defender but he knew that there were times when the boot had to go in. Successful teams are made of winners and winners tend not to care whose toes they tread on, or ankles they clip, in pursuit of victory.

Such single-minded determination can prove expensive as it leads to bookings, dismissals and suspensions. In the past this danger was reduced for good sides as they tended to dominate possession and were less likely to commit fouls. Thus the fine disciplinary records of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the 80s.

However, as the tempo of the game has increased, and referees become stricter, the better sides have also become regular offenders but this year two of the season's three heavyweights appear to be taking the principle of giving no quarter to extremes.

In all competitions Arsenal and Chelsea have each had seven players sent off, double the Premiership average and only exceeded within the division by Blackburn's nine. Arsenal have also received 66 yellow cards and Chelsea 82 - a figure only surpassed by Everton. This season Chelsea players have missed 31 matches through suspension. There will be more to come for they were at it again at the weekend, having three players booked, one of whom, Roberto Di Matteo, was then sent off. Arsenal had four players booked.

The third contender, Manchester United, also finished a man short, Paul Scholes being dismissed in Sunday's FA Cup tie with Chelsea. This would not have been unusual a few years ago when United were regarded as a snarling, bruising side with Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce forming a formidable backbone. Now, compared to Arsenal and Chelsea, they are relative angels. Scholes was their fourth player to be dismissed while their bookings tally, from 44 matches, four more than their rivals, is 65. They also top the Fair Play League - Arsenal are joint seventh, Chelsea in the bottom half.

United's improvement is not an accident. As well as attempting to cultivate a more appealing team, Ferguson has sought to reduce suspensions which have previously cost United dear in Europe. But Ferguson could not resist criticising Sunday's referee, Paul Durkin. Gianluca Vialli, as usual, kept his own counsel and Arsene Wenger, unusually, sympathised with Saturday's official, Steve Dunn. Ferguson felt the yellow card tackles were "innocuous" but while Scholes' first booking seemed harsh his second invited a caution. Durkin could also have been harder on Roy Keane and Phil Neville. He said yesterday he was happy with his decisions having viewed the match video.

At Highbury, Wenger felt Dunn had "a difficult match", a belief exemplified by Lee Carsley's crunching first-half tackle on Dennis Bergkamp which he, correctly, allowed. Good though the tackle was it was high risk and this is where responsibility comes down to players rather than referees. Had Carsley mistimed his tackle by a fraction he could have been off. Mark Hughes and Dennis Wise may suggest, as they did on Sky, that such tackles are part of the game but it should be clear to players by now that they risk a caution at least.

A look at the scars on Marco van Basten's ankles is justification enough for the stricter refereeing. The answer, for defenders, is to stay on their feet as was brilliantly demonstrated by Marcel Desailly on Sunday. Time and again he not only dispossessed his opponent but also won possession, which is not common when a tackler goes to ground. True, he was booked, but that was for pulling Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back, not for taking his legs from under him.

So far Arsenal and Chelsea have largely survived the glut of suspensions, though Arsenal's European campaign was severely undermined by their indiscipline. This is largely due to the strength of their squads, whether they continue to do so, as the games become ever more important, remains to be seen. Already the Chelsea match-day programme is left to reflect that, given the club's problems with suspensions, international call-ups and injuries, selecting the side "is like running a Sunday morning team". So, at times, is its behaviour.