VALENCIA (AFP) — Real Madrid kept its title hopes alive Saturday with a dramatic, 1-2 win over Valencia after a late-match penalty was converted by Cristiano Ronaldo, after the referee judged that Mesut Ozil was impeded in the penalty box.
The team had to stage a comeback, after an hand ball penalty gave its opponents an early lead. The victory keeps them within 4 points of league leaders FC Barcelona, with a pivotal match coming next weekend, at the Camp Nou.
Fade to a Barcelona football blog, in a galaxy far away …
Hmph! Just once I’d like to see them win without getting a late gift. Why don’t we get those calls? And Penaldo does it again. I hope we kill them at home this weekend.
Pretty interesting, isn’t it? I got to thinking about this as I was coming down from the giddy aftermath of a match that I just didn’t think that we were going to win, and being lambasted over my assertion that both penalties were soft.
But let’s start by saying hats off to Levante. I have never been more nervous about a match in a loooong time than this one, because it was against a Top 5 side in their house, a side that plays its hearts out and defends so well, a side that beat our title rivals on that very pitch, earlier this season.
With two enormous matches coming up, one of which would be rendered meaningless if the team didn’t take care of business here, cause for concern was easy to spot. And it didn’t take nightmares long to come true, as we (as usual) missed some glorious early chances that could have made things very different, then conceded a penalty that technically, was correct even as the match commentators justifiably (to my view) labeled it soft.
The most common bicycle racing crash injury is a broken collarbone, because when you are crashing, instinct is to put your arms out, to try and catch yourself somehow. It’s absurd, but it’s reflex. It takes many years and many crashes to automatically let go of the handlebars, and cross your arms over your chest.
So I am sure that there are some defenders who, when a ball is headed for their face, keep their arms behind their back. Sergi Busquets isn’t one of them. For me, the reason that “in the official’s judgment” is supposed to enter into the picture is that a referee is supposed to rely on his years of experience, and ask himself the “intent” question.
Flash back to way early in the season, against Mallorca. Adriano thwacked a ball into the box, almost directly at a defender, who had little chance of avoiding it. The ball hit his hand, a penalty was awarded and Messi, fresh off his failure from the spot against Sevilla, converted with style. Then as now, some judgment needs to enter into the picture. To be sure, there are rules that govern moments such as that. And the prevailing trend in the Liga seems to be when the ball touches a hand, it’s a penalty. It’s one that I don’t agree with, and not just because it would have kept Busquets from taking a penalty and earning a yellow card. Every rule needs nuance, particularly when being ajudicated by human beings. That’s where the intent question comes in. Busquets was protecting his face. That the ball hit his hand was incidental. For me, it shouldn’t have been a penalty if the ref were to exercise judgment.
As an unfortunate consequence, note that later in yesterday’s match, on two occasions we hit balls directly at Levante defenders, then raised our arms in the universal “handball!” entreaty. That, for me, is where improperly applied judgment and notions of intent enter the picture. Again as the match commentator noted, why wouldn’t attackers just smack a ball directly at a defender’s hand in the box, if the call is going to be so automatic?
It must also be noted that if Valdes doesn’t flap ineffectually at the ball and clears it like he has a pair, it never comes to the Busquets situation. Ball up that fist, and punch that thing outta there. Then reset. He put his defense in a bad spot with that alleged clearance, and we know the rest.
We were down 1-0, against a team that was defending with 8, 10 when necessary, and we looked out of ideas and inspiration after Thiago pushed his header wide, somehow. And times were sad.
Guardiola’s lineup was one that I would call intelligently hopeful, with Valdes, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi, Sanchez. It was a lineup that had scoring power and defense, one that should have pretty easily turned the trick against Levante, all else being equal. But with a Champions League grudge match coming midweek, THEN the Mother of All Clasics on the weekend, all else wasn’t equal and Levante played like a side that knew it could steal some points and maybe, just maybe, find its way into a Champions League spot, with the attendant riches.
Yep. But our play was distracted and desultory, and we got to the half with more than 70% possession and, as my dumb ass saw it, little hope. I even Tweeted that if we got to the half without equalizing, we’d get no better than a draw. Sighhhhh.
Doubt? No, more typicus culeus I believe is the Latin term, for that typical cule who sees doom around every corner. Panic? No. Situational pessimism? Yep. I admit it, just as I admit to being overjoyed to have been wrong, made so by two spot-on substitutions by Pep Guardiola, Iniesta and Cuenca. Suddenly, there was life but even then, it took a bit of absurd, “how the hell did THAT happen?!” magic from two players who I predict are going to be terrifying for opponents next season, Messi and Sanchez.
Those two in effect, did a 1-2 in space equivalent to a telephone booth, before Messi spanked a high-speed curler into the near side, almost off the dead run. Another symptom of typicus culeus is that you just don’t consider that kind of stuff, even though it has happened time and again, that moment of genius that makes everything possible again, that raises hope from despair. That was a stupefying goal that deserved some Ray Ray commentary, which would have been right for the occasion.
Aieeeeeghhhh! Did you SEE THAT!? Messi makes rainbows and puppies from thin air, and can feed the multitudes with his genius, for genius was what it was Phil. Puuuure genius. You can follow him into a revolving door and he’ll come out first. Or some such. And with that goal, the mood of the team changed. And there was much rejoicing.
It must also be noted that during the desultory phase, Guardiola didn’t look like a coach who considered the Liga lost. Whether this is because of the hypercompetitiveness that makes him want to win everything, or because he doesn’t believe his own boondoggle, dude was coaching his butt off, and looking worried as nothing that he was able to do could inspire his charges. And then came the magic.
From there it was 1-1 and the match felt different. Our speed of play increased and suddenly, there was purpose, drive and effort. Levante looked dangerous as heck off the counter, but that’s why the footy gods made Mascherano and Puyol. So that was that. Levante defended, and looked to be fairly content to play for a draw in their house against the best team in the world, as Cuenca kept on doing what he does, only to a) get ridden to the end line by a Levante defender or b) throwing a cross in to nowhere.
To his credit he kept trying and trying, with a vibrancy that these days seems to elude Pedro, but that’s another story. Then suddenly Cuenca took a pass, drove into the box at the Levante defender, and down he went. At first there was some hesitation as the officials wanted to be certain of the call, but then it came. Penalty. You can see it here. The Levante player shoves Cuenca. As to whether Cuenca shoves first, etc, etc, depends upon your worldview.
For me, again, it was soft. A correct call? Yes. Technically. But it was pillow soft. Some say there can be no “soft” penalty, that an infraction is an absolute. I quibble with that. You can have a penalty given in which a defender sticks his leg out to deliberately, cynically trip a player to stop him from scoring, thinking that at least the keeper will have a shot at stopping a PK, instead of giving up the sure thing goal. And up comes the foul.
Then you have the more nuanced situations such as the Cuenca penalty, one that he earned with effort and aggression, running directly at the Levante defender and battling for a position in the box. We scoff at EE penalties earned, but this is what they do: force a defender to make a play, then force the referee to either ignore it, or make a call. In this case, whether you believe it was influenced by the silly Busquets penalty or not, the ref made the call. Up stepped Messi, and it was 1-2.
From here, Levante struggled to change gears, to go from a team content to not let us score to a team that had to score. It took a while for them to do that, and there were some maddening moments in which they had possession in our end, and we just didn’t seem all that interested, or really able to clear the ball. We regained control, and saw things out to a peaceful conclusion.
Does the penalty tarnish the result? Nope. In my little mind, the two softies cancel each other out, and there’s just the Messi wonder goal. So the result would have been the same: 3 points.
I raised some ire by calling both penalties soft, and saying that we got a break in that match. Boy, did some people let me have it. Some even raised the “It’s silly when people seek equivalence by faking being fair in an effort to seem balanced,” etc, etc. But here’s the thing:
Admitting that we get some breaks doesn’t make you any less of a cule. What’s more, it doesn’t make you a fraud, or self-righteous, or any of the other words being thrown around. For me, it makes you honest. If we can admit that there are breaks that we don’t get, we can admit that there are breaks that we do get. It’s the same with penalties. We get some, we don’t get some. And because of the atmosphere …. okay, poisoned atmosphere, any and all Liga discussions feel like American political discourse. It’s a hyper-polarized world in which UEFAlona can only win with official interference, or we never get calls, and EE get all the penalties called in their favor.
The truth is, as usual, somewhere bouncing around between the two opposing viewpoints. Did we get lucky in getting the Cuenca penalty? Nope. Cuenca forced the play, and got the call. Would I rather have not put our Liga future in the hands of an official? You betcha. He made the right call. Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t soft, or that anyone who says as much is a traitor to the Blaugrana.
What’s funny is that we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. So we rejoice and say “Huzzah! They got one right,” and people say “Cheaters, you can’t win without the officials.” But if someone says “Whew! That was soft, but I’ll take it,” then it’s “Stop trying to seem fair. That’s stupid.”
When we went down 10 points in the table to EE, I said that I would keep believing in this club until it was mathematically impossible. Now the lead is 4 points, and very possible. I, and others who admit that hey, we got some breaks don’t love this club any less than anyone else. And I have a pile of soci cards to prove it. We support, scream, weep, exult and share in the joy that this club brings just like any other cule. And yes, some cules can be objective in a way that says “I support my club, and will do so to the death, but I am also pretty adept at identifying a gift horse.” And that’s okay. It doesn’t make us special, or sanctimonious, or holier-tha-thou. It just makes us a cule who has an opinion that might be different than another cule’s.
As long as we all love and support the same club, where’s the harm?
Are we ready? At present, our beloved club has won every trophy that it has set its talents to this season. But I don’t think I would be lying if I didn’t say that none of those trophies are “big” in the way that the Liga, or Champions League trophies are. We’re starting with a clean slate against Chelsea, and we are 4 points down in the Liga to EE, who are coming to our house next Saturday. If we win, the lead is down to a legitimate 1 point, rather than a “We played, now they have to match us” 1 point. And the pressure will be immense.
If we lose, is the Liga done? No. There would still be 4 matches left, in which anything could happen. It would be difficult, with a 7-point lead and only 12 points to play for, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Believe until you can’t believe any longer.
As for Chelsea, this is a grudge match that could get very, very ugly. That club considers that it has some unfinished business with us, and it will come out loaded for bear, particularly in their house. Pundits and folks who know the game are saying that we’re going to hand them their lunch. I say that with a few set pieces, they could hand us our lunch, then get to a situation where they can park the bus in our house, or something crazy like that. You never know. I do know that we will see a very, very different Chelsea than the rest of the Premiership has seen this season. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.
But we have the horses to do this. Our squad is as full as it’s going to get (boy, would I love to have Villa in the house for this tie, and the Clasic), and we’re playing great football. I’m ready, even as I’m not anything even approaching mentally ready for this. It’s two much too soon, so to speak.