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Mansfield React with Calm While "Neutrals" Bay for Blood

While Mansfield's manager and players reacted with common sense to Luis Suarez' handball, so-called football neutrals sought blood. It was hardly surprising, even if the misplaced focus does a disservice to Mansfield's strong performance.

Clive Mason

With his arms outstretched following an initial effort on goal, there was little that could be called conclusive proof that Luis Suarez moved his arm such that the quick ricochet off the goalkeeper and onto his wrist was hand to ball rather than ball to hand. The close proximity and unexpected bounce of the ball similarly argued against intent, or at the very least made it impossible to judge.

The arm, though, was clearly well away from the striker's body, and intent or not it provided him with a clear advantage. As such it was up to the referee or linesman to blow the play dead and award a spot kick to mansfield inches from their own goal line. That they failed to do so is a mistake that can only be placed at the feet of the match officials and not the player, who only did what any other player at any level of football would have when he thumped the fortuitous deflection into the open goal.

"What he did was instinctive," said Mansfield manager Paul Cox following the match, showing more calm and common sense minutes after losing a hard-fought cup tie than the supposed "neutrals" baying for Suarez' blood. "We should embrace him as a talent, rather than [criticising him] for doing something that was instinctive.

"All he did is do what any striker would have done," he added. "If Matt Green had done it we would have accepted it. I can't be two-faced on that. That's when you need a referee or a linesman to spot those kind of things.

"If you look at the body language of players, all my lot are running to the ref and linesman and Suarez is blasting the ball in the net to say 'I've just handled that.' I don't want to say anything bad about him because he is a fabulous talent, and if the shoe was on the other foot then we would have taken it. But when you have officials at that level, you expect them to pick up on it."

While Cox reacted to his side's defeat with disappointment but little vitriol, ESPN UK match commentator and supposed neutral John Champion led the charge to see Suarez strung up for "the work of a cheat." Champion spent much of the final half hour of the match chastising Suarez, repeatedly claiming intent where none was clear and even suggesting Suarez kissing his wrist following the goal—something he does after every goal and which Champion has seen when calling Liverpool matches in the past—was an act of provocation aimed at Mansfield supporters.

"We take our responsibility to deliver the highest standards of coverage to our viewers," read ESPN UK's inevitably unconvincing response to Champion's biased ranting. "ESPN’s editorial policy is for commentators to be unbiased. Inevitably this can involve treading a fine line in the heat of the moment. Comments during the Mansfield v Liverpool match caused offence where none was intended and we have spoken to our commentator about this incident."

Mansfield striker Matt Green, on the other hand, admitted he was of the same mind as his manager: "If my name was on the scoresheet, I would have [taken it] as well.

"Obviously, as a goalscorer you don't care how it goes in the net. I'm not saying that's the right way to put it in the net, but you claim anything as a striker. But it is really gutting to be put out of the FA Cup by something like that against such a big club."

Perhaps, hidden in amongst all the talk Mansfield had to do about Luis Suarez following a match that on another day they might at least have taken a draw from, is where the biggest story really should be. Perhaps today the biggest story should be that Liverpool took the lucky break of a missed call by the officials in order to defeat a club 93 places below them in the English Football pyramid while being outfought by the non-League side for long stretches of the second half.

That it isn't not only reaffirms the need many have to set up Luis Suarez as football's greatest villain no matter the facts, but also does a disservice to Mansfield, who deserved to be asked about their own strong play following the match rather than for their opinion on Suarez. For Liverpool, meanwhile, the focus on Suarez redirects attention away from an at times unconvincing display—one that, if it is repeated against Manchester United on the weekend, is unlikely to see a similar result.

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