I’d been hoping to mark this debut round-up for the noble pages of Football España with a rant-free feeling to it, but why change the habits of a lifetime? It was actually an interesting weekend’s action, to quote that over-used English adjective, but not without its controversies. I refer of course to the hand of Piqué, as opposed to God, and to the strange antics of Mateu Lahoz, Spain’s refereeing equivalent to Boris Johnson. Like Johnson, Mateo Lahoz talks a lot but rarely makes any sense, and his talk tends to be focused on explaining away yet another crass mistake he has just made. Johnson has better hair, but Lahoz can run faster. More on his bizarre decision in the Espanyol v Real Sociedad match later.
In last week’s column for Liga Fever, I wrote that if the Spanish league were actually a fair competition, I’d probably stop liking it, and I stick by that half-serious comment. The more annoyed you are at injustice, the more motivated you become. This truth lies squarely behind the morbid and ferocious popularity of Spanish football. To demonstrate this principle, Pique’s handball in the 6th minute of the game against Villarreal was probably the most obvious penalty this season, or perhaps of any season – but VAR failed even to revise it. Barcelona eventually won 1-3, and whether or not they deserved to is irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is whether Dani Parejo should have been shown red (and not merely yellow) after his nasty little foul on Busquets had been revised by the VAR chappies.
The point, irrevocably, is not that VAR is not working or that Spanish referees are incompetent (which of course they are) but rather that the layer of authority above these two components in the system (refs and VAR) is not working. If no-one brings the guilty to heel, or requires them in a post-match assessment session to explain their decisions, then impunity wins. The problem is systemic, not individual.
That said, the referee in the Villarreal-Barça game was César Soto Grande who hails from La Rioja, so perhaps he’d had a few vinos pre-match. It was actually an entertaining match, and could have gone either way. After narrowly escaping defeat at Benfica in midweek and beating Espanyol somewhat fortunately last weekend, the press are now referring to Xavi’s ‘flor’ (flower) – an abbreviation of the wonderful phrase ‘Tener una flor en el culo’ (To have a flower growing out of your arse) which as Cervantes would confirm means you’re lucky. Be that as it may, Villarreal failed to take advantage of when they were on top, and Barça suddenly rediscovered the art of being minimally effective in front of goal. It might be enough to help them psychologically, perhaps until they visit Bayern Munich on December 8th. Who knows? It could be the making of them, but I doubt it.
Real Madrid beat Sevilla 2-1 in the late match on Sunday night, with yet another decisive goal from Finicius – the man who has mysteriously discovered himself this season. There was a lot hanging on this game, since Sevilla would have gone top had they managed to protect the excellent Rafa Mir’s early goal from the white raiders. Benzema scored yet again, but I kind of like Rafa Mir – not only because he seems a decent chap but also because he’s a throwback to some distant age when burly centre-forwards did centre-forward type things, such as attacking the ball in the area and thudding into equally hairy centre-backs. He doesn’t immediately stand out as a Lopetegui-type player, but he’s leading the line with aplomb. Along with the ebullient Ocampos it gives Sevilla a threatening look, with forwards who mix strength and speed with the sort of dogged enthusiasm that wears defenders down. Madrid did well to resist and move further ahead thanks to Real Sociedad’s defeat at Espanyol – the first time the Basques have lost in the league since the opening day of the season, also in Barcelona.
Talking of the Basques, who fall to fourth place, it really is worth watching the replays of the goal by Isak that the aforementioned Mateu disallows. It’s the perfect example of how a referee will seek to protect his own reputation at the expense of the truth. I know at least two LaLiga players who have been reffed by Lahoz and they both told me the same thing – that he’s funny, that he’s friendly, that he’ll always enter into dialogue with the players – but that he’s basically insane. I’m not entirely sure that insanity is a qualification required by the Association of Spanish Referees, but I suppose it helps.
Unlike the hand of Piqué, you could reasonably argue that the disallowed goal did indeed affect the destiny of the game, occurring as it did in the 66th minute. It’s an interesting one, but a Real Sociedad player (I think Zubimendi) recovers the ball close to the left-hand side of the area and attempts to square it to JanuzaJ. Lahoz is in the way, and the ball glances off his foot but still reaches JanuzaJ via Isak. At this point, Lahoz clearly signals with his right arm for play to continue. JanuzaJ lobs the ball cleverly over the defence and Isak hooks it home. Faced by the sudden gravity of the advantage conferred, Mateu the Mad proceeds to disallow the goal, for reasons best known to himself. As Oyarzabal later commented to the press, ‘He gave us no coherent explanation.’ Well he couldn’t, because he’d got it wrong. One thing is the rule about the ball touching the ref, another is the advantage rule. If you play it, you cannot then retrospectively reverse the decision. Ten minutes later, Espanyol scored and Real Madrid (and Atlético) were smiling. If it were up to me, Lahoz would be giving a wage-free rest next week and time off to reflect. But it won’t happen, partly because of Lahoz’ seniority but also because Spanish institutional authority is reluctant to publicly admit mistakes.
Real Sociedad were also very wasteful of the chances they created, and are developing a condition known as ‘shootingitis’ , the symptom of which can be judged by how many passes a team attempts to effect in the final third before finally deciding to shoot. Real Sociedad are suffering badly from this disease, and despite playing some excellent stuff, are thus vulnerable to any side who counter-attack them with half-decent players like Raul de Tomas and Puado.
Ironically, over at Betis, three of their ex-players (Canales, Juanmi and Willy José) were showing the way to go against Levante, who remain winless after 15 games. Juanmi scored a hat-trick, curiously his first in LaLiga, and Betis moved up to within two points of Real Sociedad, who drop to 4th. Atlético turkey-stuffed Cádiz 1-4 away, and put a smile on Simeone’s face after some turbulent weeks. Rayo Vallecano stay 6th after a brave draw at Valencia. The hosts have now won only once in the last eleven, but they had six players booked so José Bordalás will have gone home relatively happy with his players’ performance. Isi Palazón scored again for Rayo, and is making a bid for revelation player of the year. Had you heard of him before this season? No – neither had I.
Next weekend it’s Real Sociedad v Madrid, and I’ll be there to bring you all the post-match hot gossip. Meanwhile, stay safe and stay motivated by injustice. You know it makes sense.