Tuesday 19 February 2019

Paul Hayward: Horror ‘tackles’ like Puncheon’s can no longer be indulged without punishment

Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City Photo: Getty
Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City Photo: Getty

Paul Hayward

Jason Puncheon tarnished a fine performance by Crystal Palace with a tackle that left the Premier League's best player needing to be held up by two Manchester City staffers as he hobbled along the touchline after the game.

The sight of Kevin De Bruyne being propped up by two helpers after City's 18-match winning run was halted said plenty about English football's uncured penchant for dangerous tackling, which is still mistaken for 'spirit' - and still indulged by referees. Match officials in Britain continue to display a blind spot about potentially leg-breaking challenges: not every time, but often enough to expose players to tackles that would be more heavily punished in other European leagues.

Puncheon's knee-high chop on De Bruyne was a shocker. It came after Luka Milivojevic had missed a penalty and Puncheon had stood with his back to the net to monitor any City breakaway. When Milivojevic's spot-kick was stopped by Ederson, De Bruyne collected the ball and tried to orchestrate a counter-strike.

Long after the ball left him, Puncheon's left leg came swinging in at knee height, and down went De Bruyne, poleaxed and with his hand in the air to denote a bad injury.

Puncheon was cautioned for this disgraceful 'challenge', which diverted attention from a smart tactical display by Palace and fierce, intelligent defending.

But the yellow card shown by Jon Moss to the Palace substitute (who was also carried off, on a busy day for stretcher-bearers) is the second half of an enduring problem for the English game.

The first is that players still see such tackles as a legitimate last resort, or problem-stopper. The second is that an offence of this type, if punished with a yellow card, cannot be revisited, to avoid 're-refereeing' the game; in other words, to protect match officials from embarrassment.

This was a clear example of an incident on the ball being dealt with at the time (inadequately or not) and, therefore, falling outside the scope of disciplinary review.

So it ends there for Puncheon, who might have put De Bruyne out for the season, or even ruined his career.

Moss was negligent in not seeing the lunge as a straight red card. In that sense, the concern sets in before the subsequent disciplinary obstacles come into play. What was it about Puncheon's challenge that persuaded Moss a yellow card was sufficient?

Charitably, one might suggest he must have failed to see or hear the full impact.

The suspicion, though, must be that English or British match officials are still subconsciously inured to challenges that support the game's self-image as a tough, uncompromising world in which physicality is valued.

So it should be, but there is confusion. A tap in the penalty box these days prompts pundits to announce 'contact' has been made and that a penalty has been conceded. Yet, when Puncheon takes De Bruyne out at the knees, we call it a yellow card.

Palace deserve praise for rejecting Newcastle's ultra-caution, and trying to give City problems. They look good bets to avoid relegation.

The challenge that put Palace's captain Scott Dann on a stretcher was not comparable to Puncheon's wild swipe.

Dann was injured by a routine cynical foul on De Bruyne (again) on the edge of his own box.

Justifiably or not, there is extra indignation when a top player, an entertainer, is injured by the kind of foul that had De Bruyne writhing.

City had already lost Gabriel Jesus to a knee injury sustained as he did the splits. No contact was involved. For neutrals, the prospect of not seeing De Bruyne again for a couple of months was hard to take.

This is the wrong approach, of course, as Pep Guardiola, emphasised after the game. On the protection issue he said: "No, no, not the best - all the players."

Protect all the players, by all means, but also acknowledge that game-changers attract particular attention from those intent on nullification.

Most of all, the idea that a booking should preclude further action looked very shaky after Puncheon's challenge.

Almost as shaky as De Bruyne as he was helped along the touchline. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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