Penalty polémica hides Barça's vanishing act as Zidane finds a way

Sid Lowe on 26 October 2020

“I’m just pissed that we lost,” Sergiño Dest said. His teammates had already disappeared down the tunnel, swiftly ducking out of sight, and now he was alone: a 19-year-old American in an empty arena trying to explain how Barcelona had been beaten in the clásico again. “I think we deserved more,” he said, which he at least probably did, standing there in front of the TV camera at the end of an afternoon in which he might have been Barça’s best player. “We had chances, they had chances,” he offered. “They were just a bit sharper in taking them, and that was it.”

Only that wasn’t it and never is. When the final whistle went a minute or so after Luka Modric had scored the third in a 3-1 Real Madrid win, Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman had shaken hands with Zinedine Zidane and then waited by the tunnel for the referee, Juan Martínez Munuera. “Why,” he wanted to know, “is there only VAR against Barcelona?” When Sevilla had brought down Lionel Messi in the last minute the VAR had not intervened, he noted. When Getafe might have had two red cards, it hadn’t either, he said: had the referee not been watching last week? Now when Ramos had fallen to the floor, it had. “Someone has to explain VAR to me,” he insisted.

The moment that Koeman claimed had decided the clásico came after an hour, when Clément Lenglet grabbed hold of Sergio Ramos’s shirt inside the area. Ramos leapt, a longing look in his eye as he went. At first, Martínez Munuera could be heard saying: “Ramos was pulling first”, and no one else really appealed. But in the VAR room, José María Sánchez Martínez had seen the stretched shirt, and told him to take another look. When he came back from the screen having watched the incident frame-by-frame, he pointed to the spot while Jordi Alba spat something about a brass neck. Ramos scored his 25th consecutive penalty, and it was over. Madrid were one clásico ahead: 97-96.

“Is it a penalty for you?” Koeman asked during the press conference afterwards. That’s not important, replied the reporter. “I want your opinion,” Koeman shot back, probably expecting some support. Yes. “Well, then we don’t agree,” Koeman said. “For me it’s not a penalty and I asked the referee if one day they could explain the VAR to me. Why is there only VAR against us?” Guillermo Amor, former Barça midfielder and now the club’s institutional director, suggested that just as underperforming players get left out, so should referees: “There’s so much at stake.” Another director, Xavi Vilajoana, was more direct: “This is a fucking scandal,” he tweeted. “Munuera, you can go to hell.”

And so it started. The Catalan daily Sport described it as “the classic robbery”. El Mundo Deportivo called it “unfair” and claimed that “Madrid play in another league”. Sport travelled to Benidorm, the referee’s home town, where they claimed to reveal he is a Madrid fan. The penalty opened every programme and dominated every debate, where positions are pre-assigned, trenches dug and occupied in advance, but then it always does. Koeman’s question could usefully be reworked: why is there only VAR, full stop. Polémica takes priority, even when there is none: a penalty, an offside, a red card handed more weight than any moment of inspiration.*

Luka Modric scores Real Madrid’s third goal.
Luka Modric scores Real Madrid’s third goal. Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP

“It’s clear,” Ramos said. The pull was there. Lenglet had Ramos’s shirt in his hand and his fate in the VAR’s, which is rarely a sensible place to be. Whether the pull had been enough to impede Ramos or send him flying was for the referee to interpret. Shirt pulls rarely get checked: just six since it started. If all of them were, we’d be here all day – which it sometimes feels like we already are. Koeman insisted Ramos had pushed first and been pulled one way only to fall the other, more theatre than foul. Ramos admitted both men had been had been “on the limit”, but insisted that he could not understand how there was even a debate. Refereeing experts were divided. But there was no getting away from that shirt, stretched.

The controversy eclipsed all else. But why was that The End, anyway? There was still half an hour to go when Ramos scored yet Barça barely reacted. And why, when it finally ended, was a kid who was making his first clásico appearance and can’t yet speak Spanish the one pushed in front of the camera? What does that say about the collective and their character?

Barcelona had been slightly on top when the penalty came. Ansu Fati had just flashed a shot just wide and Philippe Coutinho had headed past the post. But when Madrid scored, Barcelona dissolved, slipping silently from the game. Koeman didn’t make any changes until the 81st minute, and then he made three at once, throwing on Ousmane Dembélé, Francisco Trincão and Antoine Griezmann. Four minutes later, he threw on Martin Braithwaite. There were three more chances, all of them clear, but all of them for Madrid. Griezmann, definitively a problem now, has a single goal since the return from lockdown; on Saturday he had a single touch.

The formation fell apart, and it hadn’t entirely convinced in the first place. Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 is often a splodge: a defence, two midfielders and then, some way away, four attacking players gravitating to the same place, everyone turned inside, right footers on the left, left footers on the right, no one offering any width. Alba’s return partly remedied that, Fati was excellent as a false nine and Messi had more touches than anyone, producing the kind of performance that some people claim is bad only because it’s him. But still it didn’t entirely work; having played well off the front from central positions, Coutinho and Pedri were back wide, ineffectual again. And as time slipped away so did Messi – the more they looked for him, in fact. By the end, he had completed a sixth clásico in a row without scoring or assisting.

Often it feels like there are a load of No 10s crowbarred into the team, even though there’s no real place for them all. Behind them, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong are exposed, vast avenues opening to either side. On the first goal, it was Federico Valverde taking an easy route through midfield, on the third it was Modric. Talented, theoretically a perfect Barcelona signing and now with a manager who knows him, De Jong has been oddly irrelevant. Busquets has been … well, he has been, but you can’t help wondering if he is any more. Put together, it does not work.

Lionel Messi sends a free-kick into the wall.
Lionel Messi sends a free-kick into the wall. Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP

It was not all bad, and it is legitimate to wonder what might have happened without the penalty. Or, as Dest said, with better finishing. It is legitimate too to demand time: this is still a team in transition and it is only week seven – in fact, there was a sort of unexpected acceptance of the result, if not the refereeing. Maybe that’s the point: maybe that made it easier to take, becoming someone else’s fault. Alba was good for as long as his legs could carry him; vital, in fact. Ansu is for real. And Dest was exceptional. There are good players in the squad, young ones too. But this was the third consecutive league game that Barcelona failed to win. And now they had revived Madrid.

Their manager, too. There is something about Zidane, something about Madrid. One Spanish bookmakers produced astudy showing that their last three clásico wins came when the odds were most stacked against them. “That negative energy can be felt in the dressing room, but the veterans among us take it upon ourselves to get it out of there, even if it’s with a Hoover,” Ramos said after the latest of them. This was a unique clásico – silent and sad in front of 98,000 empty seats, laced with concerns that both teams lack something – but there was something familiar about it by the end. Barcelona haven’t beaten Madrid since Zidane returned.

“He walks towards the gallows often but always turns round,” as Francisco Cabezas put it in El Mundo. Madrid had been beaten twice in a week. If their first half against Cádiz last week was the worst in years, it only held that title for three days before Shakhtar Donetsk took them to pieces. But then Zidane has been here before and he knows; few see through the politics and pressure like him, acutely aware of where it all comes from, convinced there’s a way out.

“The sun always comes out,” he said and on Saturday afternoon it did. “We’re not here to shut people’s mouths, we’re here to believe in our work,” he insisted. “We have to enjoy this after some of the things that were said about the squad.”

*And yes, this column is aware that it’s now doing pretty much the same thing. Bloody hypocrite.

Elche 2–1 Valencia, Barcelona 1–3 Real Madrid, Osasuna 1–0 Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla 0–1 Eibar, Atlético Madrid 2–0 Betis, Valladolid 0–2 Alavés, Cádiz 0–0 Villareal, Getafe 0–1 Granada, Real Sociedad 4–1 Huesca

Talking points

• For Osasuna’s 100th birthday party, the new Sadar was opened up and looking brilliant, complete with standing areas and a see-through roof. When Rubén García scored the only goal against Athletic he picked up a shirt with “FANS 12” on the back and paraded it before the cameras.

• There were 42 fouls in the Getafe-Granada game, the visitors seeming to decide: if you want to play like that, we will too. It worked too, even if it took one of those fouls (which wasn’t actually a foul) to clinch the victory, Djené gave away a penalty with what pretty much the perfect tackle. Granada are third.

• Real Sociedad: tasty and top. Not that it matters, according to manager Imanol Alguacil: “There’s no point in even looking at the table until the last five games.”

• Lucas Pérez’s Sunday: Clean through, pushed over when he was just about to score. Smashes a penalty against the bar. Has a superb volley disallowed by a tight offside given by the VAR. Gets a shot cleared off the line. Ends up absolutely soaked and can’t even have a shower afterwards. Still, at least his Alavés side won, a superb pass releasing Jota Peleteiro for the first goal at Valladolid, whose manager says are “screwed up”.

• Forget for a moment that it’s Barcelona, Madrid and even whether you think the VAR decision was right. TV cameras caught Neto saying something that we can all get behind: “Five minutes looking at it to come up with that that shit?”

• Atlético have now gone 21 league games without defeat, the best run in the division. Marcos Llorente scored the first and Luis Suárez the second. Elsewhere, it was another day, another disaster for Valencia.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Real Sociedad 7 11 14
2 Real Madrid 6 5 13
3 Granada 6 0 13
4 Villarreal 7 0 12
5 Atletico Madrid 5 9 11
6 Cadiz 7 0 11
7 Osasuna 6 2 10
8 Elche 5 1 10
9 Getafe 6 1 10
10 Real Betis 7 -4 9
11 Eibar 7 -1 8
12 Barcelona 5 4 7
13 Sevilla 5 1 7
14 Valencia 7 -2 7
15 Alaves 7 -3 7
16 Athletic Bilbao 6 -2 6
17 Huesca 7 -5 5
18 Celta Vigo 6 -6 5
19 Levante 5 -5 3
20 Valladolid 7 -6 3

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