Predicting the Champions League and Europa League Final Referees

Image courtesy of Daily Mirror

With the semifinals of UEFA’s two premier competitions coming to a close, we now know the teams who will be battling it out in the cup finals in the coming weeks. Chelsea and Arsenal will play out a London derby in the Europa League Final in Baku on May 29, while Liverpool and Tottenham will contest the big one, the Champions League Final in Madrid on June 1.

What we don’t know yet, however, are the identities of the referees who will be taking charge in the showpiece matches – and so today I’m going to tell you who I think will be chosen, looking to continue my perfect predictions record of the semifinals.

VAR and the ‘short’-list of referees

The first consideration I would like to point out is the fact that VAR will be in operation for both finals – in the Europa League’s case, it will be the competition’s first-ever match with the system in place.

VAR has been used for the entirety of the Champions League’s knockout phase, and with this being the case, UEFA has stuck to a small group of referees throughout the round of 16, quarterfinal, and semifinal matches. Normally, there would be a wider variety of officials used in at least the last-16—and possibly the quarterfinals as well—so as to eliminate the possibility of the same refs doing the same teams. This year, however, UEFA has made a point of only going with referees with VAR experience, be it in their domestic leagues or perhaps the World Cup.

Whereas 18 referees took charge of matches in last year’s CL knockout phase, that number has been reduced to 12 for this season’s edition – here is the list:

Carlos del Cerro Grande (ESP)
Clément Turpin (FRA)
Felix Zwayer (GER)
Björn Kuipers (NED)
Daniele Orsato (ITA)
Damir Skomina (SVN)
Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP)
Danny Makkelie (NED)
Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Szymon Marciniak (POL)
Felix Brych (GER)
Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)

Although Milorad Mažić was in the middle for last year’s CL final having only officiated EL knockout matches prior, with VAR experience seemingly being a prerequisite this season, I am 100% sure that the referees for both 2019 finals will come from this CL list.

Eliminating referees from the list

Although we have a dozen names here, there are more than a few referees (eight of them, to be precise) who I can say with absolute certainty will not be chosen for either final. Marciniak, for starters, has been steadily declining all season and had a dreadful match in the Barcelona-Lyon round of 16 second leg, so he’s out. Zwayer, Turpin, and Makkelie are all slightly inexperienced in comparison to some of the other names, so they’re out too. (Although, for the record, Turpin and Makkelie in particular have both been excellent this season – the latter could very well be a VAR for one of the finals.) Orsato and del Cerro Grande have Italian and Spanish referees, respectively, ahead of them with regards to seniority, so they’re out. Brych did the CL final two years ago and hasn’t had a particularly inspiring season, so I don’t think he has a realistic shot either. Finally, Kuipers, as good a referee as he is (in my view, the best in the world), has already had three European finals, and, especially after having done last year’s Europa final, probably won’t get another.

So, with all that in mind, here is a much more manageable list of candidates to work with:

Damir Skomina (SVN)
Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP)
Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)

Twelve have been whittled down to four – I can guarantee you with absolute certainty, and you can put this on the record, that both the CL and EL final referees will come from this list. I will go through the referees one by one before giving my official predictions at the end.

Image courtesy of Tribuna

Gianluca Rocchi

Rocchi is 45 years old and is reportedly stepping down from the FIFA list in December, so this is really the last chance he has to be assigned a European final. He has been rather unlucky in his career, pretty much constantly living in the shadow of fellow Italian Nicola Rizzoli, one of the world’s best referees of the past decade. Fortunately for Rocchi, there are a few things going in his favour for a final assignment to finally happen.

Firstly, no Italian teams made even the semifinals, let alone the finals, of either competition, which makes him more than eligible for either match. Secondly, there’s the question of VAR. This goes without saying, but UEFA obviously wants to have not only the best officials on the field but in the booth as well – and one of the very best VARs out there is fellow Italian Massimiliano Irrati. If UEFA wants Irrati in one of the finals—which they should—then it would make a lot of sense to pair him with somebody who he works with on a regular basis domestically.

However, there is one big factor working against Rocchi: the rest of his team. His two regular ARs retired from the FIFA list at the end of 2018, so he’s been working with a new team since January. There are a few problems with this, however: AR1 Filippo Meli is assigned to the FIFA U20 World Cup, which runs during both the CL and EL final dates, and AR2 Matteo Passeri made a big error (which was luckily caught by VAR) in Team Rocchi’s last match in the CL, the Man United-Barca first leg.

Normally, I’d say it’s almost certain that Rocchi does get assigned to one of the finals – he is the only one out of the four seriously in the running for both the CL and EL. The only question now is: will it be logistically possible?

Likelihood of refereeing Champions League Final: it is his last year of eligibility – but he’s probably the second choice
Likelihood of refereeing Europa League Final: if he can get his full team together, he’s the favourite

Image courtesy of Habertürk

Cüneyt Çakır

Before I discuss his chances of refereeing a European final, I have to talk about Cüneyt Çakır’s performance in the Liverpool-Barcelona second leg: he was OUTSTANDING. It was one of the very best officiating performances I have seen in a long, long time. Anfield is not an easy place to referee, and especially not with the atmosphere of a European semifinal second leg. However, Çakır was the calmest man in the house, and was spot-on with every decision he made.

Unfortunately, that this was a second-leg CL semifinal (combined with the fact he has already refereed a past CL final, in 2015) obviously rules him out of Madrid’s showpiece match. Although there doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule that a referee may only officiate one Champions League Final, there haven’t been any repeat referees since 1970, so it’s safe to assume that the precedent won’t be broken now.

The Europa League Final, on the other hand, is definitely a possibility. Çakır hasn’t had any EL matches all season, and if UEFA is going solely on the performance principle, then it should be given to Çakır hands-down. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works – European semifinal appointments (particularly second legs) usually mean you’re out of contention for either final. But, after his performance at Anfield this past week, there’s no doubt his name will be coming up in discussions at some point. UEFA could do a lot worse than throwing him into the heat of a London derby.

Likelihood of refereeing Champions League Final: zero chance
Likelihood of refereeing Europa League Final: on merit, he deserves it – if Rocchi is out, Çakır should be next in line

Image courtesy of Voetbal International

Antonio Mateu Lahoz

Mateu Lahoz has had a really solid season in Europe, and, like Çakır, was rewarded with a Champions League semifinal, the Tottenham-Ajax first leg. Unfortunately, also like Çakır, that probably rules him out of doing the final. With the odd exception of 2016, when Mark Clattenburg refereed a CL semifinal and then the final, UEFA tends to ‘protect’ the referees they designate for the finals by keeping them out of the higher-profile and late-stage matches. Unfortunately for Mateu, in theory, with this being the first time in six years that no Spanish team has contested the final, it may well be a golden chance gone by for him.

With Valencia having been knocked out of the Europa League semifinals, however, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Mateu chosen for the final in Baku. Mateu’s style of refereeing is a quite a bit more permissive than many other Europeans, and letting the game flow would certainly benefit the nature of an all-English final (and a London derby, no less) between Chelsea and Arsenal. However, with Mateu hailing from the city of Valencia, it is uncertain whether UEFA would still allow him to referee a final contested by one team who eliminated none other than Valencia in the semifinals.

Mateu is only 42 years old, so he has time ahead of him to take a final or two in the future. However, the big factor to take into consideration is that it is extremely rare for Spanish teams to be completely shut out of the finals for either competition, so UEFA will no doubt be at least thinking about potentially throwing him into one of this year’s matches.

Likelihood of refereeing Champions League Final: pretty unlikely, but with no Spanish team involved, this could potentially be his only shot
Likelihood of refereeing Europa League Final: dark-horse candidate – depends how UEFA sees the Valencia situation

Image courtesy of FOX Sports

Damir Skomina

UEFA’s handling of Damir Skomina has been a bit of a mystery to me. He’s one of Europe’s most experienced referees, having been on the Elite list since the 2009-10 season, and has consistently been in the top bracket of officials since then. He’s routinely performed excellently and maintained a very high level of refereeing, but his first final assignment came just two years ago in the Europa League. In my opinion, he is the best current UEFA referee who has not yet taken charge of a Champions League Final. However, all signs point to this year finally being his year.

The first big indicator was that UEFA decided to post an article on their website explaining the VAR decisions from the round of 16 second legs – with the main one being the controversial, match-deciding, stoppage-time penalty Skomina awarded to Man United against PSG. Now, given that this was the first-ever round in which VAR was in Champions League operation, you could chalk the decision to post the article up to UEFA just trying to inform and educate the public on the referees’ decision-making processes. However, it is more or less unprecedented for UEFA to go to such lengths to publicly defend referees. I think the more likely explanation is that UEFA was attempting to subvert the negative attention Skomina was getting for his (correct) penalty call, already knowing that he was in line for the final.

That PSG-Man United match turned out to be Skomina’s last in the CL to date, with UEFA keeping him out of both the quarterfinal and semifinal stages. He did get assigned a Europa League quarter – tellingly, it was probably the least competitive one on paper, the Chelsea vs Slavia Prague second leg.

With Skomina having been given the Europa League Final just two years ago, it would serve no purpose to give him another one now. For this reason, considering the lengths to which UEFA have gone to protect him in the latter stages of both competitions, it looks like it’s the CL or bust for him.

Likelihood of refereeing Champions League Final: very high, should be considered the favourite
Likelihood of refereeing Europa League Final: zero chance, would be a completely nonsensical appointment

The official predictions

For me, a lot is still up in the air, and much of it has to do with Team Rocchi. Undoubtedly, at 45 years old, with this likely being his last opportunity to take charge of one, it would be a no-brainer for UEFA to assign him one of the finals.

However, a few things have to fall into place for that to happen. Firstly, FIFA would need to clear AR1 Filippo Meli to temporarily come back from the U20 World Cup, which seems unlikely to me. Secondly, it’s unclear whether UEFA has refrained from assigning Rocchi to any matches in the semifinals to ‘protect’ him or as a punishment for his AR2 Matteo Passeri’s error in their last outing.

Although Skomina hasn’t been assigned any Champions League QF or SF matches, UEFA has publicly made it clear that they are backing his controversial VAR decision in the round of 16, and going on to assign him to a Europa quarter as well just reinforces that notion.

The only thing that could throw a wrench in Skomina getting the final is the Spanish club situation. UEFA will know that it is a rare occurrence to see a Champions League Final devoid of any Spanish teams, and this may well be the only shot Mateu Lahoz has to be appointed – he has performed well enough and avoided enough controversy to make his semifinal assignment irrelevant. And, while you might say, “Just give him the Europa final,” Valencia’s elimination in the semifinals may still rule him out of that.

Rocchi, in my mind, would have been a shoe-in for the EL final, but there’s no guarantees now with his ARs’ situations. I maintain that Çakır is the best choice for that match if you’re looking for the highest-quality referee (especially given the two teams playing), but there are a lot of external factors that will surely hold a lot of influence on that decision.

So, to end the suspense and end the post, here are my official predictions. I’ll do ARs, fourth officials, and VARs too, because why not.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Europa League Final

REF: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)

AR1: Bahattin Duran (TUR)
AR2: Tarık Ongun (TUR)
4TH: Daniele Orsato (ITA)
VAR: Felix Zwayer (GER)
AVAR: Sascha Stegemann (GER)

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Champions League Final

REF: Damir Skomina (SVN)

AR1: Jure Praprotnik (SVN)
AR2: Robert Vukan (SVN)
4TH: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)
VAR: Massimiliano Irrati (ITA)
AVAR: Paolo Valeri (ITA)

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