The destiny of the Spanish league title is in Real Madrid’s hands. Or their upper arm, perhaps. Or maybe their shoulder. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish.
It certainly was for some television viewers in the lead-up to the second goal of Madrid's 2-1 win at Real Sociedad, the result that leapfrogged Madrid above Barcelona at the top of La Liga on the basis of their head-to-head advantage.
As he prepared to volley his 17th goal of the league season, Karim Benzema controlled an awkward, high ball with a part of his body the player indicated was his shoulder, but might just as well be described as the top of his right arm.
VAR deemed there had been no handball. VAR had moments earlier also agreed with referee, Xavier Estrada Fernandez, that a Real Sociedad ‘equaliser’ from Adnan Januzaj should be ruled out because Januzaj’s colleague Mikel Merino was in an offside position, and obstructing the vision of Thibaut Courtois, the Madrid goalkeeper.
It was the second time in three days the new league-leaders had been blessed that way by VAR, Valencia having had a ‘goal’ annulled for an offside against a player who had not touched the ball at 0-0. Madrid went on to beat Valencia 3-0.
Add a penalty in Madrid’s favour against Sociedad, and you can compile quite a catalogue of touch-and-go incidents that make up the narrow difference between first and second in La Liga.
“VAR’s table-toppers,” raged Sport, a newspaper with a strong leaning towards Barcelona, on Monday. From their perspective, the words of Gerard Pique, the Barcelona defender at the weekend now seemed darkly prophetic when he said: “It’s very hard to see Madrid dropping any points given what we have seen over the last two matchdays.”
Pique was speaking immediately after Barca dropped points for the first time since La Liga’s Restart, drawing 0-0 at Sevilla. They can return to the top on Tuesday night with a point or three against Athletic Bilbao, but will sense that from here on, they are playing catch-up.
With such a tight joust - the two old enemies equal on points, Madrid with the tie-breaker advantage because they took four points from the season’s two clasicos - scrutiny of refereeing decisions is to be expected. All the more when it is these two rivals, when the sport is trying to work out what effect spectator-free stadiums has on refereeing, and while VAR is still generating mistrust.
On Sunday, VAR was busy, from the moment it awarded the penalty against a hard-working but out-of-form Real Sociedad. The player fouled was Vinicius Junior, whose energy and pace had been the most potent weapon Madrid took to the Basque Country, and who was making his first start since the three-month shutdown, in a front three also including James Rodriguez, who had not been in a Zinedine Zidane XI since October.
Few forecast that pair starting. As Rodriguez made his comeback for what looked, on paper, the toughest of the 11 matches Madrid face after the resumption, Eden Hazard was rested. Marco Asensio, who had made a sensational, goalscoring return from 11 months out injured against Valencia, was saved for late in the second half against Sociedad.
All of which reminded that second-guessing Zidane’s team selections is far less straightforward than picking a fight with VAR. It has become even harder after the Frenchman has had two months of lockdown, theorising at home, and another month plotting how to best shepherd his players through a hectic fixture list and maximise the opportunities offered by five substitutions per match.
Zidane, whose remarkable managerial career so far has yielded three European Cups and a Spanish league title and not yet three complete seasons in charge, does have a happy knack of making telling substitutions.
Granted, it is easier to do that when a fully fit squad allows the coach to stack his bench with the likes of Gareth Bale, Isco, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo, Rodriguez and Vinicius, but Zidane makes the right call often enough that it is becoming a trademark.
For Madrid’s first match after coronavirus-enforced break,against Eibar, Zidane made his changes too hastily, an emphatic first half giving way to a flaccid second 45 minutes, as four substitutions were made by the 61st minute. Against Valencia, Zidane kept to Plan A for longer, and Madrid built up their rhythm.
On Sunday, there was a new and surprising plan, in which a fresh, unleashed Vinicius would be the key. Three games, nine points. Only Villarreal - whom both Barcelona and Madrid have to meet in the run-in - have had as productive a restart.
And Madrid appear to have a gentler run of fixtures than Barcelona over the next eight matchdays. But here's one guarantee: every refereeing decision will be under the microscope.
“It bothers me that we end up only talking about referees after a deserved victory,” said Zidane shortly after midnight on Sunday.
By Monday lunchtime, as Quique Setien, the Barcelona manager, previewed the visit of Athletic Bilbao to Camp Nou, the talk was still of referees. “Everybody saw what happened at Real Sociedad,” said Setien, “and everybody will draw their conclusions”.