“How was your matchday experience?” asked the electronic scoreboard here. The answer for Neil Swarbrick was: pretty lousy. Showing a red card after 90 seconds would have guaranteed some headlines; sending the wrong player off after a minute and a half ensured they would stand out from the page.
As Wilfried Bony went through on the edge of the area, Craig Dawson’s thigh intervened; the striker stumbled on and was brought down, after the whistle had gone, by Gareth McAuley, this time inside the box. Swarbrick awarded a free-kick and dismissed McAuley.
A refereeing blunder like this is far worse than one from a goalkeeper. The keeper can redeem himself, but there was nothing Swarbrick could do that would erase this stain from the game.
At half-time he admitted to a BT Sport reporter that the sending-off had been a case of mistaken identity, and when the teams came out after the interval the big screen focused on his every step to the centre circle. After the game Swarbrick confirmed his error in a statement.
The West Bromwich Albion manager, Tony Pulis, thought a solution might be for managers to be given two challenges to a refereeing decision, similar to cricket’s system of referrals. “This is one of our great exports, the Premier League is the greatest in the world in terms of people watching and we have to give the referee some help,” he said. “What it will do is eradicate these kinds of mistakes and give the referee a chance to redeem himself.”
Nevertheless, one way or another West Bromwich would have been down to 10 men with 88 minutes remaining. Under the circumstances, 3-0 might have been an acceptable scoreline. It became a match played almost entirely on the edge of the Albion area, while the scoreboard at the Etihad rattled up statistics showing that by half-time Manchester City had enjoyed 80 per cent of possession with 400 more touches of the ball than their opponents. By the finish they had aimed 43 shots at Boaz Myhill’s goal.
Saido Berahino, the visitors’ lone striker, was as isolated as an aristocrat at a Socialist Workers rally. He had one attempt on goal, heading against Joe Hart’s bar from almost point-blank range. There was a little over a quarter of an hour left and, had it gone in, City would have been leading only 2-1.
Like the scoreboard in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night, though, the one at the Etihad was not an accurate reflection of events on the pitch. Moments later, David Silva steered home a scuffed shot from Stevan Jovetic to make the game completely safe.
In Barcelona, Hart had given one of the great displays by an English goalkeeper. Now he watched as Myhill stretched his ability to the limit to keep the home side at bay, saving well from Silva and even more athletically from Sergio Aguero. In the space of 10 second-half seconds, Aguero struck the post while Bony sent the rebound looping on to the crossbar.
The only question after the red card was who would break through for the champions, and it was a kind of poetic justice that it should be Bony. After Fernando’s shot had been blocked by Jonas Olsson it spun up in the area, the Ivorian brought it under control with great skill and drove home his first goal since his move from Swansea.
Fernando has one more goal for City, and they have both come against Albion. Number two arrived as Olsson attempted to stab back a blocked shot to his keeper. Myhill failed to hold it and Fernando bundled in the loose ball. Pulis thought Eliaquim Mangala had committed a foul on Berahino in the build-up, but this was hardly the most contentious refereeing decision of the day.
Manchester City: (4-4-2) Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy; Navas, Fernando, Lampard (Jovetic, 65), Silva (Milner, 82); Aguero, Bony (Dzeko, 78)
West Bromwich: (4-5-1) Myhill; Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Lescott; Sessègnon (Mulumbu, 89), Fletcher, Gardner, Baird, Morrison; Berahino (Anichebe, 86)
Referee: Neil Swarbrick.
Man of the match: Myhill (West Bromwich)
Match rating: 5/10Reuse content