The final was over before it began, really. As Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool prepared to go head-to-head in Madrid in the Champions League final, many pundits felt that this would be a tight game between two excellent attacking teams.
Instead, it was something of a quagmire, bogged down by the heat, the humidity and that penalty decision.
Within 30 seconds of the game starting, Sadio Mane collected the ball on the left flank.
The Senegal international shaped to cross the ball but Moussa Sissoko, the Spurs midfielder, was gesturing to a team-mate with his arm outstretched. Mane appeared to attempt a cross and it struck Sissoko on the chest and then hit his arm. A penalty was given. Mohamed Salah scored it.
But within this passage of play lies a pertinent question: Did Mane mean it?
He had clearly seen that Sissoko had his arm outstretched, indeed, it could not really be missed. And he struck the ball with venom, but it was not towards goal nor was it aimed into the box.
Now, if it was deliberate, there is a lot to be said for Mane’s invention in the situation. He may have seen a chance and he may have taken it. It could have been accidental but the more you watch it, the more it appears that he really was trying to hit Sissoko on the arm.
With the introduction of VAR, it was always going to give the referee a decision to make, with the officials holding the ability to slow the game down to an infinitesimal degree. UEFA’s head of referees, Roberto Rosetti, claimed earlier this year that an “unnatural position” of the arm could see a penalty awarded regardless of whether or not the handball was actually deliberate.
Now, one might be a tad confused by that. But it’s as simple as this; if a defender has outstretched his arm for any reason, and the ball strikes it, it’s a penalty, intent or not.
And that poses a very real danger in the Premier League next season when VAR will be at every single stadium in the top-flight.
Indeed, at normal speed, it could have been called either way. But the referee consulted with the truck and they told him that there was no error in awarding the penalty because, as stated above, Sissoko’s arms weren’t completely by his side.
But when will they ever be? We then enter the realms of deliberately provoking such an action, akin to diving in the area when a leg is outstretched. If a striker falls over it, the referee has a decision to make.
It would be prescient, then, for managers across the Premier League to instruct wingers to merely aim for the arm and see what happens.
Picture the scene: If your club’s winger sprints away to the byline but does not see a pass in the area, he can merely smack the ball against the defender’s arm, scream in protest in the hope of a VAR check and, on the basis of a slow-motion replay, a spot-kick could be given.
It doesn’t really seem fair; the law certainly needs some clarification.
But as it is, it is a legitimate tactic, again akin to diving, where an attacker will attempt to simulate contact with a defender before hitting the deck.
Saturday’s decision sets a dangerous precedent; expect to see far more penalty kicks given for handball next season.