BOSS Eddie Howe insisted some of Jefferson Lerma’s yellow cards had been “very harsh” this season and added: “I think referees are looking out for him.”

The combative midfielder was sent off following two cautions after 51 minutes against Aston Villa on Saturday.

He was booked on 18 minutes for a foul on Jack Grealish – before a second yellow came for blocking off the Villa captain.

And Howe, who admitted post-match his side felt “hard done by” after the sending off from referee Anthony Taylor, insisted it was “hard to change peoples’ opinions” on the Colombian.

Lerma has been booked 11 times this season – his official tally remains at nine however, as his latest two yellows count as one red.

Howe said: “I think some of the bookings this season have been very harsh. I think other players wouldn’t have ended up with the same punishment that he has.

“Unfortunately for Jeff, he has put himself in that position and it is very difficult I think to change peoples’ opinions.

“I think referees are looking out for him. I thought on Saturday, any other player committing that (second) foul, that wouldn’t have been a yellow card in my opinion.”

He added: “I think there have been one or two where I would be critical of Jeff in terms of how he has ended up getting booked, and they are the ones not really involving tackles.

“Tackles are part of his game and you cannot get him to second-guess himself – he just has to play naturally.

“But it’s certainly something that if we can improve it and stop him getting suspended then we would love to do it, but we can’t take away his game.”

Midfielder Lerma is suspended for Sunday’s away trip to Sheffield United (2pm). He is then just one caution away from another two-game ban.

“He is such an important player in the middle of the pitch, such a tenacious ball winner for us, who does a lot of the physical stuff that goes unnoticed,” said Howe.

“But we will have to make do without him for one game and then of course he is walking the tightrope again, of 10 bookings. We just hope we can get through this spell and not miss him too much.”