LaLiga: Tantalisingly poised title race, handball rule and other talking points

The title race continues to be alive and kicking in LaLiga after Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid ended in a stalemate and Real Madrid, Sevilla played out a 2-2 draw in controversial circumstances.

Tanuj Lakhina May 10, 2021 11:40:57 IST
LaLiga: Tantalisingly poised title race, handball rule and other talking points

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid played out a goalless draw with both teams pushing for the LaLiga title. AP

On Saturday, in a sunny Barcelona, Lionel Messi stepped up to take the free kick. Fifteen seconds remained on the clock. He had scored from this spot, in this position, at this juncture many times before. The Argentine took couple of steps, side-footed the ball, up and over, only for it to miss Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak’s goal by a whisker.

Over 24 hours later, on a cool night in Madrid, Nacho Fernandez teed off Casemiro who tried to find the bottom right corner, had Sevilla’s Yassine Bono scrambling, but it went just wide. Like Messi, Casemiro is not averse to scoring crucial, late goals. But this one had missed. As had Real in the title push.

Couple of inches either way and the LaLiga title race would have looked very different. But with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid playing out a stalemate and then Sevilla, Real Madrid ending in 2-2 draw, none of the contenders won and the advantage is back with Atletico.

A recap of the points table: Atletico Madrid hold the top spot, as they have since December, with Real Madrid and Barcelona two points adrift followed by Sevilla (six points behind) with three games to play. This could have been even closer had Sevilla held on for the win - coming within a minute of it.

Another big-game flop for Barca

LaLiga Tantalisingly poised title race handball rule and other talking points

Barcelona failed to make of the opportunity to go top of the LaLiga standings with a draw against Atletico Madrid. AP

Once again, Barcelona’s pedigree, or lack of, to compete at the top level was highlighted at the Camp Nou. In the big games this season against top-four teams and in the Champions League, Barcelona have just one win, lost four and now run their tally to three draws. And in the high-pressure situation, Barcelona squandered an opportunity to go top of the table for the second time in 10 days (lost to Granada last week).

Atletico Madrid had the lion’s share of the chances in the first half with Felipe, Angel Correa, Marcos Llorente, Luis Suarez, and Yannick Carrasco testing Marc Andre ter Stegen. In the second half, Barcelona were the better side but didn’t really look like testing Oblak but for an Ousmane Dembele header that went over.

Ronald Koeman, who served a touchline ban, has now seen his players unable to beat either Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid this season which doesn’t help turn the detractors around. In his first transitional season, Koeman has won the Copa del Rey and kept his team in the hunt for the league, but a poor record in big games may invite further speculation over his future.

Sevilla blow title race wide open... almost

LaLiga Tantalisingly poised title race handball rule and other talking points

Sevilla twice led Real Madrid only to come away with a point in the end. AP

“Gift to Madrid” read Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo’s front page on Sunday. “In Madrid’s hands” said Madrid-based Marca. And yet, in typical fashion for this title race, Real Madrid didn’t capitalise. And it could well have been worse.

Karim Benzema had a goal ruled out for offside before Fernando’s quick feet gave Sevilla the lead, a first for them at Real Madrid’s home since 2010. Vinicius Jr had multiple chances to equalise, as did Benzema whose effort was saved by Bono. The equaliser arrived courtesy substitute Marco Asensio before Sevilla looked to have found the winner, in controversial fashion, with former Barcelona man Ivan Rakitic putting the penalty away. Sevilla were on course to snap their 13-match winless streak at Real Madrid. Former Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui, in the stands serving a touchline ban, looked to be almost in tears.

That is how it remained until stoppage time when a Toni Kroos long range effort was deflected by Diego Carlos or Eden Hazard, the jury is out on this one, into the Sevilla goal. A first draw between these two at Real Madrid since 1993. Had Sevilla held on, the title race would have been down to three points between four teams.

For Sevilla, it is an opportunity lost. They’re probably the side that ‘lost’ the most in the twin draws considering how close they were to three points. “They moved up in the second half and we couldn’t get out their pressure. We lacked the precision needed and lost two points just as the game ended,” said Lopetegui in the post-match press conference. For three straight games now, Sevilla have conceded late goals with two of them quite possibly taking the title away.

Handball to decide the title

LaLiga Tantalisingly poised title race handball rule and other talking points

Asensio scored the first goal for Real Madrid in the draw against Sevilla. AP

“The play which changes La Liga” reads Marca’s front page on Monday morning. “Madrid loses to the hand” says fellow Madrid-based outlet AS. The cover has an image of Eder Militao and Diego Carlos jumping for a header with a handball being committed.

The scene of the latest refereeing, VAR drama in Spanish football happened in the 87th minute. Sevilla were asking for a penalty at one end, Real Madrid had won a penalty at the other. It was down to Juan Martínez Munuera to decide. VAR spoke in his ear and the referee sauntered to the touchline to check the monitor. As far as decisions go, this was right up there.

Going back and forth with zoomed-in footage, it looked like the ball had struck Militao’s outstretched arm as he looked to head the danger away. On the counter, Benzema had raced through and been brought down. After a couple of looks, Munuera gestured towards the Real Madrid box for a Sevilla penalty. Rakitic stepped up and scored.

“We still don't understand how the handball rule works,” said Asensio. "The referee was close, he didn't give it, play continued and we won a clear penalty, then the VAR intervened and decided to give them a penalty."

"I haven't seen the replay yet but Militao isn't even looking at the ball," said the Real Madrid goal scorer. "It touches his arm without him wanting to. We're annoyed because it changes not just the game, but our chances of winning the league."

The decision baffled everyone – even Zidane who isn’t one to speak to the officials after a game. "I'm very angry. You'll have to explain the handball rules to me," Zidane told Movistar Plus after the match. "I spoke to the referee and I asked for an explanation. He said it was handball by Militao, but the other one [an earlier handball appeal against Joan Jordan] wasn't... I don't like to talk about referees but today the feeling isn't good."

The Madrid manager was alluding to a handball by Sevilla in the first half where the ball struck Joan Jordan’s arm. Unlike Militao, however, Jordan had not extended his arm.

"If there's a handball inside the box, you give it both ways," he added. "The game is over now, but today we can be annoyed... I don't understand at all. If there was a handball from Militao, there was one from Sevilla too. I wasn't convinced by what [the referee] said.

"We can talk now, but it won't be cleared up, that's what annoys me... Today I saw a handball from Sevilla and another from Real Madrid and he only gave one. That's the reality."

In the other camp, Rakitic believed it was a clear penalty for Sevilla. “For me, it was a clear penalty as per the handball,” he told a post-match interview with Marca. “We can talk about how each person interprets it. But if the handball changes the direction of the ball, it is a penalty.”

If the handball rule, which has gone through multiple changes and iterations in the recent past, continues to be hard to understand, maybe it’s a problem for the lawmakers. Further, wasn’t VAR introduced to get rid of the controversial decisions? Now, it appears, all it has done is added technology into the hands of the same people who interpret rules and laws differently.

Real squander chance, Atletico back in control

In the grand scheme of things - the title race - Real Madrid would be kicking themselves for not making most of the opportunity. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid had drawn, Real could go top with a win. And yet an uninspiring performance - latest in many this season - didn't see them over the line despite a better second-half showing. The midfield, utterly outclassed by Chelsea in midweek, looked out of ideas as Sevilla parked the bus. The team looked ineffective and almost meandering in hope that one long range effort goes in.

With three games to go into the season, Atletico Madrid once again can decide their fate. There have been many slips in the second half of the season for Diego Simeone's men. This one could have cost them dearly but for Sevilla's hard work that keeps them in it. With Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Real Valladolid to come, Atletico are in driver's seat again.

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