Football: Spain's refs blow cold

EUROPEAN FOOTBALL

The Spanish Football Federation has said that all of today's first and second division fixtures would go ahead despite a strike by top-flight referees. Third- division referees, for the most part young and inexperienced, have been drafted in to officiate.

After a late-night meeting on Friday, the Referees Technical Committee said they were standing firm by the strike decision and threatened to stage further protests in the coming weeks unless their demands were met. The referees are demanding the right to take disciplinary action against players and club officials who are subjecting them to an increasing amount of abuse on the pitch.

"For the past month the tone of statements [against referees] and their content, have got out of control," Carmen Mendez, of the referees' committee, said. He said the verbal insults were not just harmful to referees but also to football as a whole.

The strike action comes on a weekend when Real Madrid and arch-rivals Barcelona play matches considered crucial to both teams' struggle for the league leadership. Real Madrid, defending champions, and current leaders on goal difference face Celta this afternoon while second-placed Barcelona play Merida tomorrow.

In the final match of last season and with Real comfortably installed as Spanish champions, Celta took the shine off their title celebrations by thrashing them 4-0. The match gives Real scope for redemption after their surprising 2-0 midweek Champions' League defeat in Norway by Rosenborg Trondheim.

"Now all I'm thinking about is the match against Celta, not what has gone before," said Jupp Heynckes, the Real Madrid coach. "We have to keep up the pressure [on Barcelona]," he added.

Celta have a scoring record bettered so far this season only by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. The Brazilian international defender Roberto Carlos and his Italian counterpart Christian Vieri are missing at the back.

In Italy, a sell-out crowd of 82,000 is expected at the San Siro as Milan fans hope to see their side avenge last season's 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Juventus, who will be without the midfielder Didier Deschamps and defender Paolo Montero, both injured. A full-strength Milan welcome back their captain Paolo Maldini to marshal their defence.

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