Avoiding defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad was never going to be an easy task. But for the first hour, it seemed like Aston Villa might be able to pull it off. To that point Villa had defended tremendously well all day, and it took Enda Stevens being kicked in the face on a corner kick to allow City to finally break through just before the half. Villa didn't have much of the ball, but they looked dangerous much of the time that they were in possession, and the home side were continually turned away by a resolute back line. Even if Aston Villa couldn't manage to score a goal, they'd once again play very well against tough competition, and they'd be heading back to Birmingham without being soundly beaten.
And then Jon Moss and Adrian Holmes had to go and happen. The first sign that the officials were intent on forcing their way into the narrative came in the 54th minute. After Ron Vlaar made a tremendous clearance to deny Yaya Toure and the players began taking their positions for the next corner to come, Moss pointed to the spot. For a few seconds no one seemed to know why; the broadcast showed a replay of Vlaar's tackle, and it was clean as clean could be. There didn't appear to have been any shoving in the box. And then word came that it was the sideline official Holmes that called for the penalty, ostensibly for a handball on Andreas Weimann. Replays were shown, from every conceivable angle and at every conceivable speed. Weimann's arm was extended but being pulled away from the ball. It didn't alter the path of the ball, largely because it never actually touched it or came particularly close to doing so. The ball was headed into the mix by a City player and if not for the efforts of Vlaar would have been a goal.
At this point I was pretty upset, as you'd likely expect. That handballs such as the one Weimann was judged to have committed - even when there's actual contact with the ball, which there was not in this case - are worth giving the opposition a 77% chance at a goal is one of the single dumbest things in sports. If I could change anything about the laws of the game, I'm almost certain that would be it. Referees make mistakes, but they absolutely cannot make this kind of mistake. The difference between this game at 1-0 and 2-0 is massive, and there's no way the circumstances under which the game went from 1-0 to 2-0 didn't impact the mental state of the players (especially Weimann, who spent the rest of his time on the pitch looking as though he were attempting to murder the referees with his eyes.) But it wasn't until the 65th minute that the game well and truly became a joke, when Moss awarded City another penalty for handball, with yet another assist from Holmes.
Unlike the first time around, Barry Bannan's arm did in fact touch the ball. It also touched the ball after he'd fallen on the ground and David Silva kicked the ball into said arm, which was in a completely natural position. I've seen this penalty given before, and I always think it's dumb, but it's a judgment call; however, I'm going to go ahead and say that when you've not ten minutes prior awarded a penalty for handball when the ball did not in fact touch anyone's hand, you've lost the benefit of the doubt. Tevez converted the penalty, Aguero added another two minutes later, Tevez made it 5-0 just before the 75th minute, and that was that. The game was never the same after the first penalty and it was a lost cause after the second. And though we'll never know what would have happened without the penalty calls, you're not going to convince me that they didn't make a massive difference.
I'm sure City fans and likely neutrals as well will read this and think it's sour grapes, and to some extent they're right. I get annoyed when my teams lose. I get righteously pissed off when they get screwed. I can deal with a few mistakes here and there from referees, because they have incredibly difficult jobs that are made even more difficult than they should be thanks to FIFA's shameful fear of technology and innovation. But this wasn't a few mistakes. This was an official making two very significant calls, one of which was an absolute disgrace and the other which was at best borderline, and in the process changing the very nature of the game. If I made such a grievous error with such severe consequences at my job, well, I'd probably have a whole lot more time to dedicate to writing.
Let's be clear; City was almost certainly going to win this game no matter what happened. This isn't me sitting here saying the referees deprived Villa of a point, because even down 1-0 they had a massive hill to climb, and given City's attacking talent they were likely to break through again in any event. But we'll never know, because the referees made at least one horrendous mistake that completely changed the course of the game. Being a referee is a difficult job, and part of what makes it difficult is that you're put under a magnifying glass. But when you make such a horrendous decision, forgive me if I find it difficult to muster up much in the way of sympathy.