Real Madrid is on the verge of clinching its first La Liga title in three seasons. High time for a conspiracy theory. Those follow Real around whenever it wins a Spanish title, a remnant perhaps of a time when the fascist central government favored the capital’s storied club, both emotionally and physically, over its traditional rivals.
But Friday’s 2-0 home win over Alaves was Real’s eighth in a row since the restart, a perfect post-pandemic record. Real restored its four-point lead at the top of the standings over Barcelona with just three games to go. With wins on Monday and Thursday, at Granada and against Villareal, Real could clinch its record 34th Spanish title. Should Barca lose at Valladolid on Saturday, Real could claim the trophy even sooner.
Inevitably, the accusations at Real’s expense are being readied.
With its 11th-minute penalty kick, Real raised its league total to 10 spot kicks awarded, the most in La Liga. That made it three straight games that Real scored its opening goal and ultimate winner from the penalty spot, following two 1-0 victories. It was its fourth penalty awarded in the last six games. And other teams have taken issue with this trend, intimating that officials are fixing the games for Real — only not in so many words.
Most recently, Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain cried foul after Real won a spot kick against his side, while Bilbao was denied a fairly credible penalty of its own later in the game. “We’ve seen the theme in these weeks since the restart,” Muniain said. “Depending on which teams it is, some decisions are given. Everyone can draw their own conclusions.”
Barcelona stalwart Gerard Pique and president Josep Maria Bartomeu have been critical as well.
But this ignores that the 2019-20 season has seen an uptick in penalties awarded overall. The 140 penalties given through Friday ties the league’s all-time record, set in the 1989-90 season. The Video Assistant Referee is a factor here, awarding 35 penalties while canceling 13. It’s worth noting that in the 1989-90 season, Barca was awarded 16 penalties, the record, and far more than Real this year. So far this season, Barca has eight.
“I’m tired of it,” Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said recently of the accusations. “It’s as if we only win games because of the referees. People should respect Real Madrid and what the players are doing on the pitch.”
“We aren’t going to win or lose the league thanks to referees,” captain Sergio Ramos has said. “Whoever has made mistakes and hasn’t achieved their objectives should be critical of themselves. It isn’t down to referees that Real Madrid are first.”
They’ve been backed by Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “VAR exposes everything,” he said. “If they give you more penalties, it’s because you are in the opposition’s area more.”
The stats back Simeone’s view of things. Real averages the most shots per game in La Liga with over 15, per WhoScored. And a viral thread on Twitter highlights all of the potential penalties for Real that weren’t given this season. Sure enough, there are more than a dozen penalties not awarded that could well have been.
If anything, Real deserves credit for its efficiency, for likely winning the title with the lowest goal difference in years. Even Atletico’s unlikely 2013-14 title-winning team, built on a stingy defense, posted a +51 mark. With three games to spare, Real stands at only +43.
And on Friday, Real improvised with a back line missing three starters. Dani Carvajal and Ramos were suspended. Marcelo is injured, as is regular alternative Nacho. So Lucas Vazquez, a winger, had to play right back.
Alaves came agonizingly close to scoring in the third minute, when Joselu hit the bar with a header and Raphael Varane managed to clear the ball off the line. But then Ferland Mendy was chopped down on the edge of the box and Karim Benzema converted from the spot to put Real ahead.
Real didn’t put the game away until the 50th minute, when Marco Asensio tapped in Benzema’s square ball. The goal was initially disallowed for offside by the replacement referee, after the original one had to be subbed off at halftime with an injury.
But VAR reinstated it. It was the first disallowed Real goal overturned by VAR of the season — or in other words, the first time it has ruled in its favor on a goal from open play.
The home team neglected to score a third and Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made several handsome saves to prevent the visitors from getting back into the game. Once Real went ahead, the final result was never really up in the air.
Real Madrid’s march to the title will not be slowed. But as usual, external factors are being allowed to cloud over Zidane’s managerial genius.
And while the penalty controversy may bother Real, it ultimately rings hollow, the protestations of all of the 19 teams bested.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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