"I'm bitterly disappointed with the result—I thought the best team lost," was Brendan Rodgers' take on Sunday's defeat at the hands of Manchester United, and in the wake of a match that saw the visitors handed an undeserved numerical advantage in the first half before scoring the winning goal in the second via a penalty given for a blatant dive by Antonio Valencia, few Liverpool fans would disagree. It can be all too easy to fall back on blaming officials for a club's poor results sometimes, but on a day when Liverpool outplayed their rivals and United looked incapable of creating anything on their own, it's hard to argue that referee Mark Halsey wasn't the game's deciding factor.
"What we could control, I thought the players and the performance level was outstanding. What you can't control is decisions by the referee. We're bitterly disappointed it didn't go our way today, but performance wise I thought the players were outstanding. We dominated the majority of the game, even with 10 men. I thought it was a very, very harsh decision and throughout the game that's how it went for us. A number of decisions went against us and ended up costing us the game.
"If Jonjo Shelvey gets sent off, Jonny Evans has to get sent off," continued Rodgers, referring to Halsey's first came-changing decision, one that came on an afternoon when every borderline call seemed to go the way of the visitors. "If you watch the replays, if Jonjo's got sent off for both feet leaving the ground, then Jonny Evans has to get sent off for that as well. If it's a tackle [our] player has to go for, it's also a tackle the Manchester United player has to go for—the Liverpool player can't get sent off for it while the Manchester United player stays on the field."
In fact, replays showed that even if it appeared he wasn't fully in control, Jonjo Shelvey didn't go into the tackle with both feet off the ground—only Jonny Evans did. And if sending Liverpool down to ten men for a tackle where Shelvey get ball with the side of his right foot before it deflected up to contact Evans' ankle—even as the United player lunged, two-footed and wildly and with his full body weight behind his upturned studs—wasn't enough, Halsey would later hand United a second gift when Antonio Valencia went to ground before Glen Johnson even began to attempt his tackle on the United winger in the box.
"I think everyone will see it was never a penalty," was Rodgers' take on the second incident. "Glen Johnson has made a fantastic recovery run back in and I don't know why Valencia goes down. It was certainly never a penalty. Then, at the other end, Luis Suarez gets a toe to the ball looking to go around the defender, he gets the contact, goes down and doesn't get a penalty. The only help we got today was from the crowd, who were absolutely phenomenal right the way through the game."
Liverpool has been on the wrong end of questionable decisions before this season, but at the end of the day it would be hard for the manager or fans to argue that they deserved anything other than the disappointing final results seen in the league so far. This Sunday was different. This Sunday saw a referee change the course of—and in so doing ruin—one of the biggest days on the Premier League's calendar through a pair of blatant errors and a number of questionable smaller calls.
In a just world—or even a world where the Football Association cared about the quality and integrity of its product—Halsey would find himself demoted to the Championship, or at the very least wouldn't be allowed anywhere near a marquee match until he'd proven himself capable of handling something even vaguely resembling a big occasion. Knowing the FA, Halsey will in the coming weeks be given some of the Premier League's biggest matches and Brendan Rodgers will be fined for speaking out about an embarrassing performance by one of their officials.