Real Madrid, Barcelona title race has no conspiracies, Liverpool look rusty, Arsenal’s self-inflicted loss

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Gerard Pique hinted at it even before Barcelona were held to a 0-0 draw at Sevilla on Friday, saying how hard it was going to be for his club since they no longer controlled their own destiny (“It’s going to be difficult for Real Madrid to lose points”). And Barca manager Quique Setien, speaking on Monday after Real Madrid’s controversial 2-1 win over Real Sociedad, had his own loaded comment: “Everybody saw what happened, everybody can draw his own conclusions. In my opinion, Pique is a very intelligent person.”

There’s not much to read between the lines because it’s all out in plain view. Madrid’s victory at Anoeta featured three big calls — arguably four, if you count Casemiro’s elbow, which was somewhere between a yellow- and red-card offense — and they all went against Real Sociedad.

Yet you can justify each one. There’s no smoking gun proof that there was a miscarriage of justice.

Casemiro might have seen red, but equally, many referees won’t send a guy off 22 minutes into a match. Vinicius’ penalty was “soft,” and while there may or may not have been contact, Diego Llorente’s lunge doesn’t get the ball and puts Vinicius off his shot. Mikel Merino is in an offside position and in the way of Adnan Januzaj’s shot: it’s a judgment call as to whether he’s interfering with Thibaut Courtois and whether his little hop puts him off. As for Karim Benzema’s goal that wasn’t disallowed, IFAB rules for 2020-21 define the arm as beginning “at the bottom of the armpit.” Leagues are free to adopt this interpretation for the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but it must be remembered that even under the old guidance, referees have plenty of discretion.2
Complaining about referees has been around for as long as there have been journalists around to listen and fans around to get angry. It’s a classic, and it works because it plants a seed of doubt in an official’s mind, particularly when it comes to pre-emptive warnings. If you say “Gee, I hope Referee X isn’t biased against us” before kickoff, it adds a layer of pressure to his job, making him aware that if he makes a mistake, folks will think he’s nike nfl jerseys paypal

Equally (and plenty of referees have spoken about this) there is such a thing as “psychological subjection,” the idea that if you make a mistake that harms a bigger club that gets more coverage, it will get more attention and hurt your reputation more than if your mistake harms a smaller club. It’s not that referees are prejudiced; if they’re sure of themselves, they’ll call it the way they see it. It’s when they’re not sure — and in some cases, you can’t be sure — that they have to fight the urge to factor in the consequences of a wrong decision. That’s why decisiveness is a key characteristic for match officials, just as much as getting things right. These are the sort of people that if you take them out to lunch, they’ll glance at the menu and order straight away.

Real Madrid have won one league title in the past seven years, while also being crowned champions of Europe four times. I know a knockout competition is different from a league, but somehow if there is some big pro-Real Madrid conspiracy afoot, it’s curious how it affects UEFA referees more than it does their Spanish colleagues.

I don’t think this issue — if the sniping and screw-turning on referees continues — will ruin the run-in, at least not for me. The rivalry and regionalism and venom is part of the equation here. That said, I do think it’s unnecessary. You have two clubs who have had up-and-down seasons, are not as good as they were a few years ago and who still have a Liga title to play for. That’s more than enough to keep us watching.