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Manchester City
Crystal Palace
3
0
FT
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Werder Bremen
Borussia Dortmund
2
1
FT
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Aston Villa
Manchester United
1
1
FT
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Tottenham Hotspur
Burnley
2
1
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Barcelona
Cordoba
5
0
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Paris Saint-Germain
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0
0
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2
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AC Milan
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Leg 2Aggregate: 3 - 4
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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Atkinson attack a diversionary tactic

So, Sir Alex Ferguson is expected to have another book thrown at him after the aiming of barbs at the refereeing performance of Martin Atkinson at Stamford Bridge, which he deemed to have been the deciding factor in Manchester United's defeat to Chelsea.

Indeed, Ferguson suggested that a continuation of such performances could even lead to Chelsea winning the league from what had been a disadvantage of 15 points. That was delivered as something approaching a joke, but its message was clear and present. He will not wish Atkinson to be in his presence again, and was prepared to take the hit - or book - aimed at him for voicing his disquiet.

To follow Ferguson's logic, David Luiz, Chelsea's outstanding player, should have been red-carded for two, perhaps three, bookable offences. And Chris Smalling was the victim of simulation when Yuri Zhirkov was ruled to have been fouled for the award of Chelsea's match-winning penalty.

In both instances, his case was compelling. Luiz's excellence was marred by a pair of bodychecks on Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney while Smalling could barely get out of the way of Zhirkov's falling leaf motion. In the face of such a lack of authority, one wonders just how Atkinson would fare when tasked with a fixture like Wednesday night's Old Firm pitched battle.

However, it could equally be argued that Chelsea's victory was achieved through Carlo Ancelotti's well-observed switch of tactics, and that United had secured their own downfall through caution after an opening goal that had confirmed their superiority. When Lampard's penalty arrived, it denied a tired United team that had actually been hanging on.

But such footballing reasons for defeat have been forgotten for, in usual style, Ferguson has switched focus away from his team and by extension his own failings, a trick he has used throughout his career yet which works almost every time. The profligacy of Rooney's finishing and the stupidity of Nemanja Vidic getting himself sent off in a lost cause are yet to come under the spotlight. Instead, it is Atkinson's record officiating Chelsea matches that is under scrutiny.

Such managerial complaints are made after every game, with the likes of Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce more than matching Ferguson for the regularity of their dissent of refereeing decisions. Indeed, no manager in the Premier League could ever claim a clean slate on such a matter, but when Manchester United's manager says it, it becomes a backpage splash. And Ferguson knows the deal.

Making it personal against Atkinson was always set to land him in trouble, and it was not as if he has not been here before. "You want a fair referee - or a strong referee, anyway - and we didn't get that," he said. "I don't know why he has got the game. I must say, when I saw who the referee was, I did fear it. I feared the worst." Ferguson may have feared a defeat but he clearly did not fear the authorities when making such a slight. As it was, defeat launched him on the attack. A calculated risk was taken: if it meant the authorities thinking twice before offering up Atkinson's services again then it was clearly worth trying to rescue something from the occasion.

Ferguson was prepared to accept the associated collateral damage - he is currently on a two-match suspended touchline ban after his late-2009 punishment for his cruel pinpointing of referee Alan Wiley's corpulent physique. A punishment here would see the suspension revoked and, after being able to man the Anfield touchline, he will watch his team's next two matches from the comfort of the Old Trafford's posh seats.

His team - and the officials - are likely to have to do without that hunched figure in a black coat on a sidelines, a presence that has not lessened with advancing years. Last time that happened - after the Wiley affair - his team drilled Everton 3-0 at Old Trafford, and Portsmouth were beaten 4-1 at Fratton Park.

Ferguson will demand the same from his team, though underneath the public indignation at Stamford Bridge, his true feeling may have been that his team may not be equipped to deal with the challenge ahead, meaning they may miss out on their 19th title. If it means hiding that reality from his opponents, Ferguson will accept any weight of book thrown at him.

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