Juventus' Buffon, Benatia can't blame referee Oliver for Madrid meltdown
It is often said that a good referee is the referee who makes his decisions and is not seen. Unfortunately for Michael Oliver, in his biggest game to date, this was not the case.
All was going well in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg between the two European giants of Real Madrid and Juventus, especially if you supported the Italians who were 3-0 up, until the final moments of the match.
With the clock ticking down at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid began a last-ditch attack. As the ball was played into the Juventus penalty area, defender Medhi Benatia inexplicably barged into the back of Madrid's Lucas Vazquez just as the forward was about to shoot. Benatia made a challenge for the ball but made no contact. He was guilty of impeding his opponent by physical contact, a clear foul.
Anywhere else on the field, this action would have resulted in a free kick being awarded. But in this instance it provided a penalty kick to Madrid and near certain Champions League elimination for Juventus.
Premier League referee Oliver, 33, had no hesitation with his decision and showed immense character to give such a monumental spot kick. His decision was based purely on the actions of Benatia.
Of course Oliver would have been aware of the magnitude of the occasion but, at that precise moment, all thoughts of where he was -- the game, the timing, the occasion -- would have become secondary. As a referee, the call comes from your gut and what you have witnessed. Oliver was in an optimal position and his body language showed a positive and decisive reaction.
The reaction of the Juventus players was predictable, given the consequences -- they were moments away from extra time and could have avenged last season's defeat in the final to the same opponent.
Oliver showed great restraint and attitude in standing firm in support of his decision. Unfortunately, the continued remonstrations from Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and the physical contact that accompanied his uncontrolled outburst had to be met with the appropriate response. Buffon was sent off for physically manhandling the referee. The verbal outburst would probably have been lost in the moment, but laying hands on an official is taboo and required him to be shown a straight red card.
The fact that it was potentially Buffon's final match in the competition would have no bearing on Oliver's actions; Buffon overstepped the mark and he paid for it.
Buffon's comments after the match, in which he questioned the character of Oliver -- calling him "a killer, an animal" with "a garbage bin in the place of a heart" -- were classic reactionary statements to what was an emotional occasion.
When the dust has settled, Buffon will surely reflect on his actions and accept that Oliver acted on instinct. It was a foul, it was a penalty, and Buffon should have been the one to keep his head and focus on saving the resultant spot kick.
Juventus club president Andrea Agnelli's claim after the match that a video assistant referee (VAR) would have helped his team's cause was also unfounded. A VAR would have only been used if either the penalty kick or the red card were "clear and obvious" errors by the match officials, and neither of the decisions fell into that category.
Similarly, his accusation that UEFA assigns referees who "are against Italian clubs" is clearly wrong, certainly in Oliver's case. The English official has taken charge of eight Champion League games, with Juve's game at Madrid his third involving an Italian club.
Coincidentally, Oliver's first time officiating a Serie A side was Juve's 2-1 win against Sporting Lisbon in October 2017, in which he booked two players on each side. Two months later, he took charge of Napoli's match at Feyenoord, in which the Dutch side claimed a win in stoppage time despite having a player sent off. Hardly evidence to suggest Oliver is "against Italian clubs."
Oliver will reflect on his evening's work with mixed fortunes. He was about to oversee arguably the biggest game of his career with aplomb, with all the headlines hailing Juve's great comeback.
However, due to Benatia's late aberration and Buffon's uncontrolled reaction, Oliver finds himself at the centre of the story -- somewhere no referee ever wants to be.
But he made the biggest decision of his professional life correctly, can be proud of his bravery, and he will no doubt make a few more in what promises to be a long and rewarding career.
Peter Walton is a former Premier League referee who is now general manager of the Professional Referee Organization