The World Cup final referee Howard Webb is set to be announced today as the man in charge of Manchester United's pivotal Premier League game against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday with the league and referees' bodies desperate for a solid performance from the officials.
The appointment of Webb, 39, is expected to be confirmed by Mike Riley, the general manager of the referees' organisation, this afternoon after a bad weekend for Premier League officials in which several wrong decisions – most notably Frank Lampard's "ghost goal" against Tottenham – have put them under scrutiny like never before.
Sir Alex Ferguson has also cranked up the pressure following his team's 1-0 defeat to Arsenal by suggesting that Chelsea had been the beneficiary of some "great decisions" in their controversial 2-1 win over Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, which puts them within three points of United.
The appointment to Sunday's game of Webb – heavily criticised by Liverpool for his performance in their FA Cup third-round defeat to United in January – will not be without controversy. However, the Professional Game Match Officials (PGMOL) body, which administers and selects referees, is aware that the game needs to pass off without a major talking point around the referee and has chosen the man regarded as the best in the English game.
Having managed to steer clear of controversy through the large part of his domestic career, Webb found himself in the thick of it in January after United's 1-0 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup at Old Trafford when he gave United a penalty early in the game for Daniel Agger's challenge on Dimitar Berbatov and later dismissed Steven Gerrard.
In the subsequent criticism from Liverpool, Ryan Babel was fined £10,000 by the Football Association for posting a photoshopped picture of Webb in a United shirt on his Twitter page. Webb also found himself the target of anger from Liverpool supporters in the days after the game. The PGMOL especially needs a solid performance from Webb on Sunday after referee Andre Marriner and his assistant Mike Cairns failed to spot that Lampard's goal for Chelsea against Spurs was not over the line and that Salomon Kalou's winner was offside.
There was more bad news on Sunday when Ferguson was critical of referee Chris Foy for his failure to give United a penalty in the defeat to Arsenal when Gaël Clichy fouled Michael Owen with three minutes left to play.
The official also missed Nemanja Vidic's handball in his own area in the first half. It is not anticipated that Ferguson will be charged by the FA for his comments.
In charge of Manchester City's 2-1 win over West Ham on Sunday, Webb has taken charge of Chelsea twice already in the league this season. He refereed in their defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in November and their home victory over Wigan last month.
Martin Atkinson, who will be the FA Cup final referee later this month, was regarded as unsuitable for Sunday's game after Ferguson's outspoken attack on him following United's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 1 March.
Ferguson was subsequently banned from the touchline for five games for questioning Atkinson's integrity.Reuse content