Cole had to answer to the letter of the law

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The Independent Football

Tuesday's events in the United States helped lend a restrained air to what would normally have been more hotly debated talking points arising from Arsenal's 1-0 defeat to Real Mallorca in Spain. Whether or not the match should have been played, it threw up three examples of the difficulties faced by even the best referees in deciding if players had dived in the penalty area or been tripped, and whether, in the latter case, a sending off was necessary as well as a spot-kick.

The experienced Danish official, Knud Fisker, had to make an instantaneous decision three times, when Ashley Cole, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and then Real's Miguel Nadal challenged an opponent who went to ground. His verdict was that only Cole was guilty, and that the attacking players involved in the other two incidents, Javier Olaizola and Thierry Henry, had cheated and deserved a yellow card. Television replays suggested he was right about the first two cases but hard on Henry, who seemed to have been clipped from behind after beating Nadal for pace.

Cole's foul on Alberto Luque, although hardly malicious, betrayed the inexperience that has surfaced in recent England games; the consequent penalty brought the only goal of the game and his red card, with 80 minutes to play, proved too much to overcome. Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger argued, without great conviction, that a penalty would have been sufficient punishment, but Law 12 clearly states, for better or worse: "A player is sent off if he... denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free-kick or penalty."

Wenger said: "To be sent off like that is very difficult to accept, but we have to accept the decisions of the referee even if they weren't in our favour tonight." It was a dignified response that fitted the circumstances, on an evening notable for the absence of the sort of atmosphere stirred up for Chelsea's defeat at Real's old ground two years ago.

That is not to say that the locals did not enjoy themselves. Before the game Mallorca's German coach, Bernd Krauss, had said: "This is a special moment for our city," and the result made the occasion of the club's first Champions' League match more special still. The performance of Luque and his fellow striker Samuel Eto'o, and the playmaker Ariel Ibagaza, emphasised that no team can travel here anticipating a bit of sunbathing and an easy win.

Schalke's 2-0 home defeat by Panathinaikos means that the two favourites to qualify from Group C have begun by losing and that neither can afford to do so again when they meet at Highbury next Wednesday. In the meantime, Arsenal continue to insist that Wenger will sign a new contract shortly and Henry has been angered by suggestions that he will leave if the manager does.

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