Most of the nation would be exceedingly grateful if Arsenal's Robert Pires were not awarded a penalty at Old Trafford today unless he was kicked at least 10 feet into the air and landed badly. Even that would be considered by many to be a borderline case following the act of grand larceny committed by Pires when conning his way to a penalty against luckless Portsmouth last weekend.
I would like to think that referees operate a secret retribution policy, by which they ensure that some sort of crude justice catches up with deliberate flouters of fair and honest play, but they are probably too busy dodging flak to think of any vigilante behaviour.
For this among many other reasons, the day's least enviable sporting task - even worse than Arsène Wenger's - must surely belong to referee Steve Bennett, who will attempt to impose the laws of football while Manchester United and Arsenal tear into each other in a match that easily earns the description of the season's most crucial so far.
But it is not the nature of the encounter that persuades us to cast a pitiful eye on him so much as the background that has been steadily building up during a week full of curious inconsistencies.
Apart from the Pires incident, which has been rightly and roundly condemned everywhere apart from Highbury, we have had the blazing touchline row between the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, and Blackburn's Graeme Souness over the tackle by Lucas Neill which broke the leg of Jamie Carragher and put him out of the game for six months.
The row boiled over into the sports pages for three or four days, with Houllier and Souness trading insults which will be of great benefit to players who have trouble expressing themselves on the pitch. At least Neill was sent off, and everyone, including Souness, agreed that he should have been. That was a rare instance of a referee's decision being supported last week.
Alan Wiley did not fare so well. He was the referee who awarded the fateful penalty after being fooled by Pires's pretence that he fell over in the area because he had been tripped. The camera that revealed Pires's deception was positioned behind the goal. Wiley would have been viewing the incident from a totally different angle. He has admitted that he made a mistake, but it was an easy error to make, and they will continue to be made unless refs are offered more assistance.
The crazy rule that because the referee took action the video evidence cannot be acted on means that Pires avoids punishment for his blatant act despite everyone being aware of his guilt. Not for the first time, the Arsenal manager avoided the opportunity to strike a blow for fair play by condemning his player's action. He admitted there was a doubt but would go no further.
Extraordinarily, a few days later Wenger launched an attack on referees for awarding too many penalties, citing examples of players from other teams winning spot-kicks by diving. He can have no conception of irony. At the same time, another attack on referees was being mounted on the back of statistics that last weekend over 50 yellow and red cards were issued in the Premiership. That brought the total to 210 yellow and 16 reds for the first five games of the season, and it drew forth from Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, the conclusion that: "Referees are establishing zero tolerance early on." He didn't elaborate on what percentage tolerance he reckons would be tolerable, but the clear implication was that the high incidence of cautions is due entirely to refs being in ultra-fussy mode.
Not once did I read even the slightest suggestion that over-zealous players could have made just as big a contribution to those figures as over-zealous referees. But, then, you never do.
Thus, we have reached the end of the week firmly swayed by the argument that the standard of refereeing is in question. It is a ludicrous proposition, that occurs at this time of the season so often it has become part of the bedding-down process. But it must be a worry for referees and, since this is by far the highest-profile match of the weekend, the work of Steve Bennett today will be keenly studied for evidence that would support claims that the control of football is in the hands of merciless martinets, and not very competent ones at that.
It doesn't help him that there's a bit of previous to be taken into consideration. Bennett was in charge on a lovely sunny day in Cardiff when these two teams met in the Community Shield, the traditional pipe-opener to the season.
Not many Arsenal fans turned up - recent evidence suggests that they are an astute bunch - and it was not an occasion that called for anything but an exhibition of the finer qualities of each team. They were at each other from the first minute, and Bennett ended up sending off Francis Jeffers and booking five others. In my opinion, he had ample opportunity to flash a few more cards, and in no way was he responsible for the game's mean mood.
Yet he appears to be the one with a stain on his reputation and that, together with this anti-ref atmosphere, adds an unnecessary pressure to an occasion already bulging with them.
All this comes at a time when referees are under closer scrutiny than ever before. Assessors, including representatives from the players' and managers' unions, watch their every move, and no doubt their first reactions will be revealing. Some people in the game, however, do not seem willing to wait. Perhaps that's why the referees were reminded last week to keep an eye on touchline-prowling managers whose haranguing does much to disturb the peace.
Sponsors Barclaycard bring out an excellent weekly newsletter on Premiership statistics, including the dirty stuff. Interestingly, both United and Arsenal come out comparatively well from the early figures.
In the first five games, Arsenal have had nine yellows and one red, while United have had six bookings. This is at the better end of a list topped by Bolton with 17 bookings.
The number of fouls committed also throws up fascinating figures. Arsenal committed 53 during that time, while Tottenham were responsible for 103 - a dramatic switch in the north London clogging ratings.
At the height of the Pires row last week Phillip Don, the Premier League's referees officer, rejected the suggestion that match officials should be allowed to call on video evidence. I have great respect for Don. He works hard and uses all sorts of analyses to keep strict observance of his men and ensure they receive the most expert advice and support.
But the video age is with us whether we like it or not. Closed-circuit television is helping to keep our streets safe, so what is wrong with using this technology to rid football of controversies that damage the game and the credibility of referees?
We seem to spend most weeks knee-deep in video-inspired inquests. If called to duty at the time of the alleged offence, the video could be more of a boon and less of a bane.Reuse content