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Handball controversy sends Juventus to second loss in four games

Nov 25, 2012, 9:41 PM EDT

Juventus' goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon reacts during the Serie A soccer match against AC Milan in Milan Reuters

Beginning May 22, 2011, Juventus went over a year without losing in league. After today’s visit to the San Siro in Milan, they’ve lost two in four, with Robinho’s 31st spot kick giving AC Milan a 1-0 win over the suddenly “vincible” Juve.

Unlike Nov. 3, when Inter Milan became the first team to win a competitive match at Juventus Stadium, Sunday’s defeat was anything but clear-cut. The match’s only goal came off a penalty call Rossoneri boss Max Allegri would later concede as erroneous.

“From the touchline it really did seem like a spot kick, but watching the replays it should not have been given,” Allegri told Sky Sports Italia after the match.

The play saw a Milan cross from the right find an airborne Antonio Nocerino near the spot. The Milan midfielder headed the ball down and into the right ribcage of Isla who, with his right arm extended, gave the vague impression the ball may have gone off his upper arm before hitting his body.

I say vague impression because after review, this looks like an instance of referee Nicola Rizzoli asserting he saw something that never happened. Take a look:

This isn’t the case of ball-to-hand or defender making himself bigger. This is just a missed call, one that’s particularly frustrating because the foul never happened.

It’s understandable for a layperson to make the mistake of thinking the ball hit Isla’s arm, but it’s hard to swallow when it’s a professional referee – somebody whose instincts should be trained to be more skeptical of unconscious conclusions. When an arm is extended like that, our minds tend to recall memorable instances of that behavior, almost all of which end in hand balls (that’s part of what makes them memorable). It’s natural to be biased toward seeing the foul, but professional referees should be training to work through that bias.

Robinho took the result spot kick and slid it past a diving Gianluigi Buffon for the match’s only score, and while Milan did prove the slightly more dangerous squad over the match’s last hour, the game played out as one more likely to end in a draw than a victory. The penalty call proved decisive.

That’s not to say we should make a big deal of this call. Or, it shouldn’t be any more significant that the number of errors that happen in this imperfect sport. For all the calls of instant replay, we’ve come to accept these things happen. Coaches, players, teams know these things are possible when they step on the field. Teams are expected to overcome them, if not outright prepare for the possibility something might go against them.

But the call does help highlight how remarkable Juventus’s previous run was. Forty-nine league games without a loss is hard to do without a lot of skill and a little bit of luck. At any time during that streak, a call like today’s could have ended Juve’s run.

After the loss, the Old Lady’s still four points clear at the top of Seria A, but with Internazionale visiting Parma on Monday, that lead could be reduced to one by the end the matchday.

With the win, Milan’s clawed their way into Italy’s top half, sitting ninth their fifth win of the season.

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