Without any doubt, the watching world yearned for La Liga’s top four either to surge or to pratfall at the weekend — it wanted a definitive move towards triumph or disaster instead of a pair of draws between Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Sevilla which allowed people to claim, falsely, that we were left with mere status quo.
Nevertheless: anyone who failed to notice that there were two absolutely rock ‘n’ roll moments, at Camp Nou and the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, which deserve to remain iconic for many years must be an emotionless, desensitised automaton who doesn’t deserve to watch Spanish football. Particularly if these two sensational snapshot moments end up propelling Atletico to only their third league title in nearly half a century.
The stage was set. The tension was already Hitchcock-level as we waited to discover whom, if anyone, would suffer from vertigo and topple over.
Nor the referee from Sunday night’s ultra-dramatic and controversial 2-2 draw between Spain’s reigning champions and the reigning Europa League holders Sevilla. He’s called Juan Martinez Munuera, and you won’t know him as well as you do Oblak. He was born two days after the 1982 World Cup final in Spain, when Italy beat West Germany 3-1. His dad’s a ref too, he’s an ex-cop and because on Sunday night he joined Oblak in defying expectation and doing what he’s been training to do since he was just a boy, he’s arguably public enemy No. 1 in the world of Madridismo.
What unites both Martinez Munuera and Oblak was that the pressure gauge on their respective worlds suddenly surged to the red zone marked ‘perfect storm-ready to explode!’ this weekend. But they held firm. If either had failed to perform with as much excellence as they did, then then digesting that failure would have stung them bitterly — probably for a lifetime.
Let’s start in reverse order. By Sunday night, Madrid knew that beating Sevilla would not only send them top of the division but also make them odds-on favourites for La Liga thanks to their points total and head-to-head record with the other contenders.
This match wasn’t just a potential antidote to the limp, tired defeat in London which turfed them out of the Champions League and put Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in the final — no. This was as close to a cup final as you can get within a league battle. The kind of winner-takes-all domestic opportunity which Madrid normally devour — against a Sevilla side who had lost the previous nine matches away to Los Blancos by a 33-7 goal aggregate!
If you were unfortunate enough not to watch the theatrical, heated, emotional four-goal thriller, then picture the scene … from referee Martinez Munuera’s viewpoint, if you don’t mind.
He’d already been guided to eliminate Karim Benzema‘s powered header because when Alvaro Odriozola had crossed for the ‘goal’ his big toe was offside. It was that close. If VAR didn’t exist there wasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell that any on-pitch official could possibly have noticed.
Madrid, instead of being 1-0 up were suddenly 0-1 down, to Fernando‘s neat sidestep and shot from close range after a Sevilla set play. Zidane, a magician at goal-producing substitutions, worked his Blanco-magic again as Marco Asensio equalised having been on the pitch for all of 70 seconds.
Then came Martinez Munuera’s moment — one of the most testing, daunting and high profile of his 27 years in refereeing (yes, he really did register for the first time as a match official aged 11 years old). For the rest of us it was pure spectacle.
Madrid are without their first-choice penalty box sentinels — Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane — and the relief watch, Nacho and Eder Militao, have already lost a goal to a cross into the box after a set piece. They are jumpy, jittery… and simply not as good as Ramos and Varane.
Whatever is in the Brazilian defender’s mind, Militao produces a midair twist where his leading leg seems to cause the rest of his body to gyrate after it and, as his right arm flails, there’s no question that the ball hits his hand. Nor is there any question that two players, Madrid’s Miguel Gutierrez and Sevilla’s leading scorer Youssef En-Nesyri, are behind him waiting for that ball to drop. It’s not going “nowhere.”
But neither Martinez Munuera nor his assistants are 100% sure whether it’s a penalty or not so, as under FIFA instructions, instead of curtailing the open play they simply let it flow so that the game may go on while the VAR officials, in a techno-bunker on the other side of Spain’s capital, can re-assess what’s just happened.
We have the first of two double jeopardies of the next 20 seconds.
Sevilla MAY have won a penalty but now Madrid are flooding upfield. The visitors are disorganised, some of them have switched off in anticipation of the whistle going (lads, NEVER do that) and now Zidane’s team is doing what it loves best. They call it “transition” football — the stages from winning the ball back, realising that the opponent has been caught with their trousers down, reacting, stringing together instantaneous counter-attack passes and, hopefully, creating a goal.
Vinicius Jr. reacts quickest to the pinball craziness in the box and sends Karim Benzema running free. The Crown Prince of Madridismo, certainly the defending champions’ best player this season and the aquiline profile about which Sevilla keeper Bono has been having sleepless nights since Thursday is suddenly bearing down on the Morocco international keeper.
Benzema fancies his chances, doesn’t pass to Asensio and tries to dance like Fred Astaire around Bono [how about that for a musical clash of cultures?]; Sevilla’s keeper throws himself at the Frenchman’s feet only to commit a clear foul. Penalty. Madrid clamour. Martinez Munuera is on the spot, knows that he’s just been thrust into the biggest dilemma of his professional career and he listens.
The voice of VAR-th Vader, Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez, in his ear tells him: “Probable penalty to Sevilla — I suggest you go to the screen to review the action.” He does.
The FIFA laws say: “It is an offence if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when their hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger.” There is NO mention of whether it’s deliberate or not. That’s irrelevant but so many ex-pros still quote that as a factor. It’s not.
There’s no mention of whether the referee should take into account that retired footballers and TV analysts will say: “That SHOULDN’T be a penalty in my opinion.” There’s no mention that a referee should take into account whether others of his profession may have taken a different decision in vaguely similar circumstances previously this season. Nor is there any mention in the FIFA laws, which much guide Martinez Munuera, of the fact that Madrid have, unquestionably, the biggest influence on the print and broadcast media in Spain — something which is wholly natural as the biggest, most successful club with the most followers.
If this referee rules out what would be a penalty and a yellow card in Madrid’s favour (Bono is involved in the ‘other’ double jeopardy participant in that a change in the laws dating from 2016 states that if a penalty is committed but the offender is genuinely trying to win the ball then it’s a spot kick and a booking, not a spot kick and a red card) and goes straight back down the pitch to give a penalty to Sevilla then all hell will be let loose until the match finishes.
FIFA states the laws and leaves the refs to manage the mayhem which ensues. But you can see Martinez Munuera weighing all this up while he stares intently at the screen showing him that, without any question whatsoever, Militao has inadvertently committed a penalty.
Ultimately, those of us who love elite football, in any country, want breathtaking skills, intelligence, strategy, assists, goals, saves, brilliance of wit and majestic danger-saving tackles. But the gulf-stream of warmth on a cold night which applies to every league, every game, every minute is drama. And this the motherlode.
Every fictional courtroom case, and that must be one of THE most prevalent entertainment formats in print, radio, television or film, builds to the jury spokesperson telling us that they’ve reached a verdict — and what it is.
Our ref on Sunday night weighed everything up, no doubt thought about his dad (a ref for years and the man who told him to take this profession up in the first place), his younger brother who’s also a professional ref, and unquestionably processed the fact that even giving the correct decision would bring him vilification. And he did the right thing, overturning the Madrid penalty to give it to Sevilla.
Whether Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitic did or didn’t slot the penalty away (he did), or whether Madrid might fight back (they did, with a deflected equaliser via Eden Hazard in the 93rd minute) or Sevilla might hold on, were wholly different dramas. For anyone who appreciates human frailty, pressure, doubt, professionalism … this was a pure magic moment.
Barcelona vs. Atleti had precisely four fewer goals, it wasn’t the barnstorming showdown that so many had wanted and the schadenfreude of Luis Suarez fatally puncturing his ex-club’s league chances with a devilishly cunning goal or assist was denied to us all by the fact that the Uruguayan had a poor game.
There were chances, some acrimony between Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Suarez; there was another astonishingly stubborn, or just plain poor, display of match misreading from manager Ronald Koeman but the centrepiece was Messi vs. Oblak.
A few weeks back the Slovenian talked about his nemesis and explained: “You can never predict where Messi is going to shoot and you can never predict when he is going to shoot. When it comes to Messi, you can never predict anything! He’s a great player, incredible, the best.
“So many times he scores and you have the feeling that you can’t understand how he scored so easily! You are not even close. Sometimes it feels like he simply passed the ball into the goal — it’s not even a shot! Even if you are at 100% form, if he wants to score against you — he will. If Messi is having his day and in good shape, then he has too much. Most of the time, you have to accept that him scoring or not will depend on him.”
Yet in the middle of this match, when tiredness and tactics and percentage football were ruling Camp Nou, there was a moment. A golden moment.
Just before half-time, Messi picked the ball up not far from the same blade of grass as when he scored THAT Copa del Rey final goal against Athletic Bilbao in 2015 — one which many people think is in the frame to be his best. This time he slaloms infield all the while beating Koke, Saul Niguez, Mario Hermoso, Stefan Savic, Felipe and Marcos Llorente. It’s already an incredible eruption of skill and pace before he lets rip.
And the Slovenia keeper who’s been beaten by so many indescribably stunning Messi efforts, who explained that this Argentinian football genius robs you of the chance to react, to predict, to prevent, simply defies his own words. That’s what’s truly beautiful.
Oblak’s leap to his left, his fingertip touch which somehow just deflects the ball travelling at cannonball speed past the post — magic. Just pure theatrical, gymnastic magic.
And it probably cost Barcelona the win, cost them three points perhaps even the title. It also set Atleti up for the moment when Militao committed a penalty the next night which Martinez Munuera was brave enough to give.
The two draws this weekend didn’t leave us with status quo — they increased Atleti’s chances of scraping over the line for a title they had “in the bag” a couple of months ago because there’s one game less to go and Diego Simeone’s side escaped their biggest remaining test unscathed.
But the drama of who actually wins La Liga is still to come: the big, big winners this weekend were the on-stage dramatic personae Martinez Munuera and Oblak. When their moment arrived they were great.