VARmageddon: End of Goals #2

The year is 2066: games and entire seasons are now decided purely by xG and “footballers” are strictly tasked with posting on social media. Marcus Rashford is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom but Brexit is still yet to be finalised. The FA, now ruled by the even more evil, genetically modified twin of Piers Morgan (created to step into Piers’ shoes upon his extremely timely death) has decided that not only is today’s game beyond repair in terms of football as we know it… but, Piers 2.0 has decided that with the help of now readily available time traveling technology (invented by X Æ A-12 Musk) the FA will be going back in time and correcting decisions using VAR. A select few were chosen to be sent back and tasked with overseeing the repairs to the footballing timeline once tarnished by incorrect/subjective refereeing; the group reported the outcomes and consequences of these decisions. I am one of them and this is what happens in a footballing universe (or VARniverse, if you will) where the correct decision is always made. THIS is VARmageddon: End of Goals.

May 3rd 2005
Liverpool vs. Chelsea
Anfield, England
Luis Garcia’s shot adjudged not to have crossed the line by goal-line technology

It is four minutes into the second leg of the 2005 Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea. Six days earlier, the two sides had played out a goalless stalemate at Stamford Bridge. The tie is on a knife edge, with two prodigious, tactically-astute Iberian managers facing off as their first years in their respective jobs come to a thrilling close. Both have tasted recent continental success. Twelve months prior, Rafael Benítez was celebrating triumph in the UEFA Cup, his Valencia team overcoming Marseille in Gothenburg; José Mourinho’s defiant Porto were crowned European champions, swatting aside Monaco in the Gelsenkirchen springtime.

An away goal here would provide Chelsea with a huge opportunity to reach their first ever European Cup final. Liverpool, attacking a raucous Kop, know that a positive start is key to destabilising a defence that has conceded just 15 goals on their way to sealing the Premier League title. John Arne Riise receives the ball on the left touchline and tickles the ball through the gaping legs of Frank Lampard. The Norwegian surges infield and strokes it to Steven Gerrard, who lifts a delightful first-time chip with the outside of his foot to Milan Baroš, running in behind Chelsea’s backline. The forward lifts the ball over – and is flattened by – his onrushing compatriot, Petr Čech. Before the reds even have time to appeal for a penalty, Luis García steals in and prods the Nike Total 90 Aerow I towards goal. John Terry’s desperate block slows the ball down enough that William Gallas is able to hook it clear, but García and Baroš are already wheeling away towards the corner flag in jubilation. This is 2005, and the hair is long and floppy.

In the VARniverse, referee L’uboš Michel’ awaits the buzz of his watch.

No buzz is forthcoming. ‘Play on, players!’ the referee’s arms seem to wave, and Claude Makélélé smashes the ball into touch. García turns and scowls at referee Michel’ from the corner, hands on disbelieving head. Captain Steven Gerrard runs to the Slovakian, brow furrowed, demanding a penalty for the foul on Baroš in the lead-up to García’s chance. Michel’ dismisses the protests, claiming to have played an advantage; an advantage that Liverpool had failed to take. In any case, VAR has reviewed the incident: Čech’s contact on his Czech mate is minimal, and the referee’s error is neither clear nor obvious, if indeed an error at all.

In-Game Consequences:
Early Liverpool pressure dissipates, the wind taken out of their sails by frustration at perceived injustice, and one of those nights at Anfield™ is slowly becoming one of those nights at Anfield. Chelsea grow in confidence and composure, their miserly defence engraving M-O-U-R-I-N-H-O-M-A-S-T-E-R-C-L-A-S-S onto the pitch with every block, every tackle, every clearance. They drag the game through extra time to a penalty shootout. All nine spot kicks have been scored so far – Frank Lampard, Eiður Guðjohnsen, William Gallas, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba convert for Chelsea; Steven Gerrard, John Arne Riise, Djibril Cissé and Harry Kewell for Liverpool. Up steps Antonio Núñez, a chance at redemption after a difficult debut season on Merseyside. He sends it into the Anfield Road Stand, his final contribution in red.

Bigger Picture:
Chelsea proceed to the final, where they meet Carlo Ancelotti’s formidable AC Milan in Istanbul. Milan, stripped of the ineligible Hernán Crespo – on loan from Chelsea – are forced to rejig their traditional diamond formation. They match Chelsea’s five in midfield with Serginho effectively tasked with tracking Lampard’s every move. With both defences stifling the opposition, the final goes down as the most forgettable of the modern era; so forgettable that, to this day, nobody can remember the actual result. The lack of action does at least ensure that the world is mercifully spared the phenomenon of shoehorning the word ‘Istanbul’ into the descriptor of every match involving a comeback from a three-goal deficit.

Steven Gerrard, taking Liverpool’s elimination as a sign that his dreams will only be fulfilled elsewhere, hands in a transfer request. “How can’t I leave Liverpool after a night like this?” he asks in a revelatory interview with The Sun. Bridges – and shirts – well and truly burned, nouveau-riche Chelsea ditch their interest in Lyon’s Michael Essien to jump to the front of the Gerrard queue. Liverpool accept a bid of £32 million plus Scott Parker, with Gerrard already halfway down the M6.

Mourinho, delighted to have prized one of the hottest talents in the English game from a rival, builds a midfield triumvirate of Makélélé, Lampard and Gerrard that forms the cornerstone of a back-to-back title-winning Chelsea, narrowly eclipsing their own points record set in 2004/05.

Acknowledging Makélélé’s role in bringing out the best in both Gerrard and Lampard, Steve McClaren identifies Michael Carrick – now of Manchester United – as the man to anchor England’s midfield. Despite comfortable qualification for Euro 2008, guaranteed playing methodical, modern, almost continental football, England fans remain unconvinced by the“criminally overrated” Carrick. “Frank and Stevie are more than good enough to play together, they don’t need a fackin’ water carrier behind them”, argue some; “We won two World Wars and one World Cup playing four-four-two. If it’s good enough for Alf Ramsey, it’s good enough for me. Drop Carrick and let’s get Heskey up front to give Rooney some support, eh!?” suggest others.

Ignoring the dissenters, McClaren persists with his formation and England make their first semi-final in 12 years via a memorable victory over the Netherlands in the quarter-final. Here, they meet Spain in Vienna. Luis Aragonés’ squad has the nation dreaming of its first major silverware in 44 years of dolor. A tactical stalemate, played out between two high-calibre midfields, leads inevitably to a penalty shootout. All nine spot kicks have been scored so far. His career rehabilitated at Celta de Vigo, up steps Antonio Núñez, a chance at redemption…

In VAR we trust.

Yoni Gordon-Teller

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