The fact that Real Madrid have yet to visit Sevilla and Atlético rather hides the fact that with four more wins it would be difficult for anyone to feasibly catch them, unless that anyone were to win all their remaining eight games. Stranger things have happened, but Madrid’s 2-1 win away at Celta on Saturday afternoon was a significant result – and all the more so for having been a game that they might easily have lost.
Thereby hangs the particular tale of the weekend’s action in Spain because the leader’s win was achieved in controversial circumstances. Then again, one begins to tire of the phrase ‘controversial circumstances’ in the context of La Liga, becoming, as it has, a sort of default for the scene, par for the windy course.
Iago Aspas, Celta’s hyper-active striker who finds it rather difficult to keep his opinions to himself, can nevertheless produce some amusing after-match sound-bites in the wake of the ninety minutes of frenzied psycho-babble to which he subjects the referee collective every weekend. Interviewed after the game he suggested, not without some justification, that the referee – alleged Madrid fanboy González Fuertes – had been bent on ‘giving Benzema a hat-trick’. The touch of irony may spare Aspas a fine, but what of those three penalties, two of which were converted? Aspas himself had contributed to the disallowing of his colleague Galhardo’s goal by impeding (from a previously offside position) Alaba as he attempted to stop the ball crossing the line.
Conclusion? VAR probably got it right, and the three penalties could be sufficient content for a referees’ weekend conference. It doesn’t really matter, in the end. If you were to ask random members of the public such as myself my opinion on each penalty, I’d give you my interpretation with an equal amount of visual-support validity and a half-decent amount of footballing experience. I can play the incidents back, time and time again. I’d probably have given one of the penalties, but the difference is that I wasn’t in the VAR room, and therefore free of the variables that affect those humans’ decisions. VAR is not Hawkeye, unfortunately. We all thought it was going to clean the game up, but it has muddied the waters further. Why?
Well it’s fairly obvious. The VAR guys on Saturday were subject to two factors which can disturb objective analysis. One was the effect of their time-pressured decision on the league title and the other is the personal histories of these assistants. The combination of these two factors means that these folks cannot possibly be 100% objective. Penalties are complicated things, and a high percentage of them require interpretation. Hawkeye’s decisions in tennis do not.
But when you add a third killer variable – the overwhelming need in Spain to protect the referee’s authority – then you have a problem Houston. The 3rd variable exceeds in importance the requirement to find the truth. That’s the problem folks, in a nutshell. Madrid deserve the title. No-one else has been good enough to stop them going eleven points clear. My feeling about the Celta game is that the VAR chappies were unusually vigilant, and that their vigilance was a result of the significance of the game. What we need is for them to be equally vigilant in all games, no matter the circumstances/variables. But they will never be entirely objective. So endeth the lesson.
Elsewhere, Barcelona pipped Sevilla 1-0 in the match of the day, and moved into second place at the expense of their vanquished opponent. The three sides below Madrid, however, are all on 57 points, 12 fewer than the leaders. The Barça-Sevilla game may come to be seen, in the immediate future of La Liga, as a watershed fixture. It will surely have no bearing on the title, but it may have indicated what we might expect for the next phase of Spanish football. Sevilla put up a good scrap considering their poor form of late, and again, VAR decided that Araujo’s arm was not there, or not extended….although it looked that way to me. Please consult the previous paragraph.
The game was otherwise even, but Pedri decided its destiny with a high-quality goal whose two ‘recortes’ (cut backs) on Ocampos and then Diego Carlos sat them both on their arses before he hit a low accurate shot to Bono’s right. It was an interesting goal because such direct offense has not been Pedri’s hallmark up to now. Like David Silva, he seems to be one of those players who prefers assists to actually scoring, like it’s some kind of nerdy obsession he has with that final pass. But Xavi has had a word and told him to be more pro-active and direct in the final third. It’s scary news for the rest, because it was bad enough trying to cope with his constant probing and pausing, like attempting to stop some strange alien whose space-time appreciation is from another galaxy. But now he’s shooting as well? Oh gawd!
The orchestra he now conducts looks to have a tasty future. It will depend on how well Xavi can keep the extra-curricular antics of Dembele and Aubameyang under control, but with Ansu Fati back this squad looks frightening – if it can satisfactorily replace Piqué, Alba and Alves in the shortish term. Sevilla may not improve on this season’s showing, but should remain competitive. Real Madrid have some serious rebuilding to do and Atlético need to reinforce some key positions. Apart from that, is any side going to surprise us? Villarreal continue to flatter and deceive – they lost to Levante, giving the Valencianos the boost of climbing off the bottom at Alavés’ expense – and Betis are kind of wonderful, but their main figures are no spring chickens and will need to stay out of the infirmary. Real Sociedad and their young pups? It would be nice, but I don’t think so.
Anyway – an interesting week looms for Spain’s three Champs League representatives. Atlético travel to Manchester again on Tuesday night, this time to face Pep’s City. Real Madrid fly to London the next night, to play the new paupers Chelsea whilst Villarreal will host Bayern at the same hour. There was some talk about La Liga showing its relative failings last season, but three sides in the quarter-finals this campaign looks like a reasonable endorsement to me. But they’re all tough calls. I can see Real Madrid worrying a dodgy-looking Chelsea, but the other two may struggle. We’ll see, but it certainly looks a good week for sitting on that TV-oriented sofa.