La Liga's third week saw two particularly interesting games played this Saturday. Barcelona stole a 3-2 victory away to Sevilla and Real Madrid managed but a 2-2 tie at recently promoted Villareal. It was the manner in which the final result was achieved in both that exceptional and that serves as a presage the 2013-14 season's outcome.
The Catalan's overall showing was strong but Sevilla played very well against Lionel Messi and Neymar and earned a tie the referee decided not to grant, disallowing what replays showed was a fair header by the hosts.
Today, Neymar was at his best in the match and his assist of Messi's goal was highlight reel material. But the question most smaller Spanish clubs consistently ask of their league--are Real and Barca treated preferentially by most refs?--came home to roost as today's match was clearly thrown off kilter by the poor officiating that was overwhelmingly in Barca's favor.
It is a shame that with such a strong display of excellent football on both sides of the pitch it would be the missed calls and poor calls of the officiating crew that decided the game. Not only should the Sevilla header have been allowed, but the long Messi run that led to the final score began as added time expired, and the eventual winning goal, off Messi's assist, was scored 18 seconds beyond that expiration. That goal should not have been allowed.
It would have been bad enough if the ref had simply missed his timing, but as the clock wound down to +3:00 the entire Sevilla bench got up to yell for the game's end only to watch in disbelief as the ref--just then--allowed the beginning of that final play instead. Given the time it took for the score to materialize, the coach and players had eons of time, which the cameras caught, to complain to the sideline official before the ball crossed the goal line.
At the opposite side of the country, Valencia's new first flight representative, Villareal, outplayed Real Madrid for most of the game. It took a Gareth Bale sliding goal and a multiple ricochet Cristiano Ronaldo score to tie the inspired hosts. Unfortunately, again, another poorly officiated game netted a result that did not mirror the play on the field.
Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Alvaro Morata had single fouls of a red card caliber and so many yellow card caliber fouls they could have received multiple reds off of those alone. But no one was ejected and at game's end the best efforts of a team that played second division last spring were for naught against a team that had spent over a century in the first division.
But the takeaways from these two games, and from the third week of play in La Liga, were to be found in the way Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti spearheaded their club's approaches to our sport. The former, inherited a juggernaut that had just acquired the only true superstar not yet playing in Europe, the latter inherited a collection of superstars that had been bludgeoned into submission under the whims of a coach and president who could not have cared less about them.
Martino is making his mark by putting his best players on the pitch and letting them create while building that critical team chemistry that makes champions. Ancelotti is working off of a script clearly written for him by someone above him. That script dictates that the best goalkeeper in the world should be a bench warmer and emphasizes big money transfers over maintaining the only world class playmaker the team had deigned to play as a starter, Mesut Ozil.
Today, albeit with a lot of official help, Barcelona played superb football and earned at least a tie. If half of Neymar's would-be assists had been converted the officiating could have been forgotten. But also today, Real played a rudderless match that should have gone against them. That, in a nutshell is where the outcome of La Liga 2013-14 is currently anchored.
Across the channel, Arsenal was beating Sunderland 3-1, and the most beautiful assist of the day, in any league, was Ozil's two-touch marvel that culminated in Olivier Giroud's in-stride strike. Nearby, on that same island, Everton was beating Chelsea 1-0, ensuring the gods had their final say, and chuckle.