PETER Lovenkrands has accused Premier League officials of unfairly targeting Joey Barton, and claimed the Newcastle midfielder is treated differently to any other player in the country.
Barton's disciplinary record has been the subject of considerable debate all season. The 28-year-old served a three-match ban as retrospective punishment for a clash with Blackburn midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen in November, and picked up his ninth yellow card of the campaign in Sunday's defeat at Aston Villa.
The caution was a controversial one, as referee Stuart Attwell appeared to book Barton for an accidental collision with Nigel Reo-Coker, and the Magpies midfielder also felt aggrieved at Attwell's decision to punish him for a challenge on Ashley Young, with the subsequent free-kick resulting in Villa's only goal.
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Thanks to his chequered past, Barton will always be a divisive figure, but Lovenkrands feels his reputation is colouring the way he is treated by match officials.
"Joey gets decisions given him against just because it's Joey Barton that's involved," said the Denmark international. "There's no doubt that officials look more towards Joey than they do to anybody else on the pitch."If anything controversial happens, it's his fault. It's a shame for Joey because he's a good player, but he's always having to deal with other issues.
"The treatment he's getting is not fair, and I feel sorry for him. He's dealing with it though and he deserves a lot of credit for that."
While it is difficult to defend his actions in the incident involving Pedersen, it can certainly be argued that Barton has been on the rough end of a number of debatable decisions this season.
He was singled out for some particularly rough treatment in last August's 1-1 draw at Wolves, a game that was also refereed by Attwell, and was repeatedly penalised at the weekend despite suffering a number of heavy knocks from centre-halves James Collins and Richard Dunne.
"The free-kick that Aston Villa scored from at the weekend was only awarded because it was Joey," said Lovenkrands. "It happens to him all the time.
"We should have done better in terms of defending the set-piece, but Ashley Young seemed to be looking for Joey because he knew if he went down to him, the referee was going to be giving a foul.
"Then the booking at the end of the game was another prime example. I was stood right next to the situation. Joey runs away upfield and Reo-Coker runs right into him. Joey stops and gets clattered, but the
referee turns around and gives Joey a booking. That can only be because of who he is."
Alan Pardew has previously shied away from criticising the way Barton is treated, preferring instead to underline the need for the midfielder to keep his cool if provoked.
However, the Newcastle boss is understood to have been privately disappointed with Sunday's events, which ultimately played a pivotal role in his side's third defeat in the space of four matches.
The Magpies' next game pits them against league leaders Manchester United on Tuesday, and with Sir Alex Ferguson's side facing an FA Cup semi-final with fierce rivals Manchester City four days earlier, Lovenkrands is hoping Newcastle's blank weekend will be a significant advantage.
"We're just about safe, so a lot of people will be saying we have nothing to play for, but I don't think you can ever say that when you're playing Man United," he said. "It's a massive challenge, and there's always pressure on us to perform anyway whenever we're at home.
"We'll be looking to put pressure on them from the word go because they're playing a lot of games at the moment and hopefully that will play into our hands."
Pardew, who will put his players through a light weekend training programme, was forced to take time out of his schedule yesterday to deny that a deal has already been agreed to sell Jose Enrique to Liverpool in the summer.
"There's definitely no deal between the clubs - 100 per cent," said the Magpies manager. "He's under contract here until next summer and we hope to open talks on a new deal as soon as possible. That's where we are.
"We want to keep our best players, and Jose's one of them. As far as anything being a done deal, that's not true. We want Jose to stay. Nothing's changed."