Reuters

Wise up, referees – stop teams kicking Chelsea

Wise up, referees – stop teams kicking Chelsea

20/03/2017 at 16:16Updated 20/03/2017 at 18:08

Dan Levene laments the hostile tactics deployed against Chelsea in recent weeks and fears it will continue unless referees crack down.

" The way, match after match, he's being punished by opponents and he's not being protected by referees, maybe one day we won't have Eden Hazard."

While you might expect to have heard those words from Antonio Conte after last Monday's kick-the-Belgian contest in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, they actually came from the man instructing the kickers.

Jose Mourinho came out with that pained defence of his creative genius, who was on the way to a league title and double player of the year award, as Chelsea boss back in January 2015.

“It's one, two, three, four, five, 10 aggressive fouls against him,” he continued.

“They kick and kick and kick, and the kid resists.”

Eden Hazard tackled by Paul Pogba

Eden Hazard tackled by Paul PogbaAFP

Mourinho's United took it in turns last Monday, a clever ploy that banks on referees giving players a series of last chances before taking disciplinary action.

Yet it was only as clever as the players involved and when referee Michael Oliver got wise to it, it was Ander Herrera who paid the almost immediate, and quite deserved, price.

Sadly, at the bet365 Stadium five days later, Anthony Taylor wasn't quite so in control.

There was no Hazard, left at home as a precaution due to a training ground injury, though his absence may have been fortuitous in the circumstances.

Mark Hughes' side lined up, one after another, to target Diego Costa – though the Welsh boss later denied it was any concerted plan.

Chelsea's Diego Costa battles Ryan Shawcross of Stoke

Chelsea's Diego Costa battles Ryan Shawcross of StokeAFP

Conte praised his striker, admitting it was a legitimate tactic to attempt to rile a player and that the famously hot-headed Spaniard was admirable in his restraint.

There are two issues here: the medical and the disciplinary.

Kick a player hard enough, and you'll injure him; kick him just a little bit less hard than that, and he might kick you back.

Chelsea look to be cantering towards the Premier League title, with Hughes adamant that it will be deserved when it comes.

But what if other bosses attempt to go down the same line pursued by the last two, one where if you can't beat them, well, beat them a bit harder?

Chelsea have 10 games left in the Premier League, one or two in the FA Cup, and one can imagine a few of those may err towards the same sort of spectacle.

Chelsea's Diego Costa sits injured

Chelsea's Diego Costa sits injuredReuters

Thirty points are still up for grabs: home games against Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Southampton and Watford, plus trips to Bournemouth, Manchester United, Everton, West Brom.

And it is already possible to see a few managers in that list who might take a leaf from the Mourinho-Hughes playbook.

Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis have enough form for it to make that worry real. Awaiting at Wembley, Mauricio Pochettino's charges gave it a fairly solid go as their championship challenge combusted late last season.

The issue, as Conte says, is that this is – at least to a certain degree – a legitimate tactic.

But referees need to moderate that. There should be a memo sent around to instruct officials to be more Oliver, and less Taylor. No special cases for Chelsea, just an upholding of the laws of the game.

Chelsea are the best team in this league, but that gives them no given right to swoop away with the title. But that supremacy should be more significant in the destination of the silverware, than the brute force of sides with far less footballing ability.

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