The fracas in stoppage time at Manchester City this month prompted charges last week for both clubs from the Football Association, and a fifth in 19 months for the Premier League leaders for the same offence. But are the London club likely to become the first sanctioned in this way since Arsenal and Manchester United had two points and one point removed respectively back in 1990?
What prompted the charge?
The game at the Etihad Stadium had crept into stoppage time at the end with Chelsea 3-1 up when Sergio Agüero’s heavy touch was followed by a horribly wild leap into David Luiz, the forward making contact with the Brazilian’s right leg. The challenge would prompt a red card for the striker but before it was shown by the referee Anthony Taylor, Agüero was pushed to the ground by the Chelsea substitute Nathaniel Chalobah. There followed a melee in front of the dug-outs, while David Luiz remained on the turf, involving most of the players on the pitch as well as unused substitutes and coaching staff from each bench. Although some of those involved appeared to be attempting to restore order, the City midfielder Fernandinho was sent off for grabbing Cesc Fàbregas by the neck and pushing him over the advertising hoarding.
The FA responded last Monday. “Both Manchester City and Chelsea have been charged for failing to ensure their players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and/or refrained from provocative behaviour,” read its statement. “It follows an incident in the 95th minute of the game on Saturday [3 December 2016].”
Why would the repercussions be more serious for Chelsea than City?
Conte’s disbelief, as made clear after Sunday’s victory over West Bromwich Albion, is because Agüero’s challenge sparked the brawl. “For me, if you are involved in a situation where you are not at fault, why must you pay?” said the Italian. “Why? I don’t understand this. At the end of the Manchester City game, my players tried to keep their calm. It would be a joke [if the FA imposed such a punishment on his club]. You must be honest and understand which team is at fault.”
Yet, whereas City would expect a heavy fine for their involvement in the ugly scenes, Chelsea are repeat offenders. This was their fifth charge in 19 months relating to the FA’s Rule E20 – the previous four had come under the stewardship of José Mourinho and in May against Tottenham Hotspur, Guus Hiddink. It is the judgment in that case from the Spurs match which has opened up the possibility, however slim, of such a severe sanction.
So what happened in May?
That game was the evening when Chelsea recovered from 2-0 down at half-time to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge and in the process, snuff out Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes of denying Leicester City the Premier League title. A spiteful occasion saw Mark Clattenburg show 12 yellow cards, including nine for the visitors, and Hiddink knocked down into the pit of the dug-out during a mass confrontation at full-time. Spurs’ Mousa Dembélé incurred a retrospective six-match suspension for an eye gouge on Diego Costa. Both clubs were charged with a failure to control their players, with Chelsea initially fined £375,000 and Tottenham £225,000 after previous similar breaches of FA rules were taken into consideration. Those fines were later reduced to £290,000 and £175,000 respectively on appeal.
What did the FA’s independent regulatory commission say at the time?
A three-man regulatory commission, chaired by Christopher Quinlan QC, published its judgment on 4 July and noted Chelsea’s “abysmal” recent disciplinary record. It listed the club’s offences of this nature going back to October 2011, with the Spurs fracas their fourth appearance for a breach of Rule E20 in the 2015-16 season alone. The previous incidents had incurred fines of £40,000 (in September), £50,000 (in October) and £65,000 (in January). “It is not simply the number of breaches of Rule E20, but the frequency within the season which makes it a significant aggravating factor,” read the commission’s report in justifying the raised level of financial penalty imposed upon Chelsea.
Yet, most tellingly, there was a concession in the report’s conclusion (on page 37 of the findings) that fines alone do not appear to be having the desired effect on the club. “The board looked to see that as between each club the fines reflected properly the respective roles played by each in the disgraceful events,” it read. “The Tottenham fine is approximately 60% of that imposed on Chelsea. The board is satisfied the greater fine on Chelsea fairly reflects its role in the incident and its lamentable recent record for failing properly to control its players. The time cannot be too far distant when a commission concludes the only proper sanction is a points deduction.” That opened the door to a potential point sanction in future.
So what is likely to happen now?
Manchester City and Chelsea had until 6pm on 8 December to respond to the charge, with both now having made their points to the FA. A three-man independent regulatory commission will look at the evidence they have supplied, if any, and scrutinise footage of the incident and decide upon the level of sanction to be imposed. It is expected to make its ruling in the early part of this week.
So why are Chelsea confident they will not have points deducted?
Largely because they will argue, with some justification, that they were not the aggressors at the Etihad Stadium. The commission will take into account how and why the incident was sparked. Similarly, it will determine just how serious the clashes were involving both teams and although incidents are technically assessed on a “case-by-case basis”, Chelsea’s involvement in this one was arguably not as bad as on previous occasions. Certainly the flashpoints at Manchester City, while ugly, are unlikely to be deemed as grave as those at the end of the Spurs game. Many of the visiting players, including Diego Costa, appeared to be attempting to act as peacemakers, and that is likely to be taken into account.
Will they take into account the change in regime at Chelsea?
Not really. The fact that Conte only took over in the summer, and his team have not been involved in similar charges this season, is effectively incidental. The commission will concentrate more on what happened in the 95th minute at the Etihad Stadium, and who they consider most culpable in provoking the fracas on the touchline.
So what is likely to happen next?
Expect Chelsea to be fined heavily, and City too. But the London club clearly need to address the issue given that if they do provoke such scenes in the future, the threat of a points deduction remains. “We are trying to improve all aspects, and also this,” said Conte on Sunday, as if acknowledging as much. “We had a bad record in the past, but now we are different. I don’t know what happened in the past. I know what is happening in the present, and that is why I ask if this is a joke or not. After the game between City and Chelsea, you could see very clearly that my players tried to keep their calm.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010