Every so often a La Liga or UEFA Champions League match seems to go only one way and when it does the hairs on the back of your neck should stand at attention. This week they stood up watching matches played in Barcelona and Valladolid, Spain.
Over the past week two such matches emerged that made one take pause and take a second look. The first match was Barcelona’s home stand against Liverpool in the semifinals of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League. The winner would be in the driver’s seat of the home and away tie which heavily favored Barcelona. Yet, Liverpool was playing their best football in some time and reasonably expected a potentially positive result from their visit—perhaps a draw or a low-scoring loss.
The second, was in La Liga, between hosts Valladolid who were fighting relegation and Athletic Bilbao who were pursuing entry into European competition next year. For each team, the points were literally gold as remaining in the top flight is the ticket to club progression for the any La Liga newcomer and European play opens the door to lucrative deals for all clubs involved. But Bilbao was the favorite coming in and odds makers felt Valladolid had their work cut out for themselves.
So, what raised our hackles?
Well, in the critical UEFA match at the Camp Nou, Luis Suarez committed four yellow-card worthy fouls (grabbing opponents and spinning them to the ground) in the first 24 minutes of the match and yet only got his card at the 81st for dissent. Imagine Barca playing 66 minutes a man down with the score at 0-0.
If the single player difference were not enough, imagine that up until the 80th minute the foul count—wait for the surprise—favored Barcelona by two-to-one (12 fouls called against Liverpool and six against Barca). It was only in the last 17 minutes of the match (seven minutes of stoppage were added), and once the hosts were up 2-0, that Barca’s fouls were called fairly and the numbers rose to the match’s final tally of Barca 11, Liverpool 15. Interesting that the end of the match should have resulted in a nearly two-to-one advantage for Liverpool. Oh, yeah, the outcome was already decided when those numbers started coming in.
Let’s not even mention that the Dutch ref, Bjorn Kuipers, was still, yet, again FIFA’s choice for a match that seemingly needed repair. Remember Brazil’s unfair win over Spain in the 2017 Confederations Cup final?
As an aside, though, pay close attention to the called foul on Messi by the sidelines in the second half. You know the one. The diminutive Argentine rolled over and over and over and sat up perplexed at why only the non-foul had been called in his favor when what he was fishing for was a yellow on his opponent. Does anyone remember Neymar, in the 2018 Russia World Cup, being savaged for play-acting when Mexico’s Miguel Layun stomped on the Brazilian’s recently operated right foot? Yeah, Neymar was the villain, then. Messi got the foul called on his opponent, but none was given him for his unnecessary, egregious, play-acting.
The added shame of this often-repeated happenstance (particularly with Messi’s Barcelona) is that Lionel alone was on such a tear that a 1-0 win simply off his sublime free kick would have decided the match fairly. But a 3-0 win, with Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino too injured to play in the return game, just about puts the tie out of reach for Liverpool. Oh, well.
In the La Liga match, the opponents, who had met earlier at Bilbao, each earning a point in a hard-fought 1-1 draw, played another tough, foul-filled, low-scoring encounter. Only this time the desperate-to-avoid-relegation-hosts scored early and thirteen yellow cards later, albeit with several incredible misses by the visitors, the vast underdogs won out 1-0.
So, what happened in the other 72% of the time remaining in the match after the hosts scored? How did Valladolid win?
Well, you see, even though seven of those yellow cards were given to the hosts, the foul count was easily three to one with the hosts the major aggressors. Those cards should have ended up being four to Bilbao and nine to Valladolid, and that still would not have been enough to catch up on the transgression deficit. Furthermore, there were multiple infraction instances of the classic non-call momentum busters, such as the arguing after each foul called, time wasting at every opportunity, and turf robbing in each throw-in.
Imagine consistently gaining 15-20 yards per throw-in or being allowed to roll and feign agony (and use up time) after every tackle, fair or not, and imagine being able to slow-walk across the entire pitch when substituted. It happened so often it was laughable. The ref simply ignored each unsportsmanlike act.
It got to the point that the Bilbao coach, who had been indignant and increasingly quarrelsome, simply gave up in disgust. In fact, there were several times in the last half-hour of the match when the only argument that left the lips of the Bilbao players, when reacting to another allowed time-wasting transgression, was “how about letting us get back to playing football, ref?”
Valladolid may well have been able to win this game on merit, but unfortunately referee Antonio Mateu (one of Spain’s best) decided to side with those who felt the newly promoted Valladolid should simply be allowed to win this one. Maybe they will have to earn their eventual slot, but with two matches left to play one is against God-awful and already relegated Rayo Vallecano. Any bets on that result?