Yesterday, at the Camp Nou Stadium, in Barcelona, Spain, hosts FC Barcelona were officially allowed to score six goals against visiting Celta Vigo, who were officially restrained from following suit. Don’t misunderstand, Celta, with a small budget and a good line-up were already in a mismatch against a rich Barcelona with a world-class line-up, one which has been clicking on all cylinders, almost at will, since Lionel Messi’s most recent return to action after surgery. But, when the officiating favors the strong in so one-sided a manner, the weak are severely handicapped in their attempts to put up a struggle.
Let us give credit to the host’s performance first. Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick. Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, scored wonder goals and Neymar gave a display of dribbling and assisting skills that showcased his world’s-best-player-in-the-making status. Claudio Bravo made some nice saves, and coach Luis Enrique’s substitutions were right on the money, giving some stars a rest and simultaneously injecting added, if unnecessary, energy to his line-up in the game’s waning moments.
Messi added to his legacy by giving up a sure 300th official career goal and instead conspiring with Suarez to complete a Cruyff-pass-penalty for the Uruguayan’s third goal. In essence, most on the host team played well and almost any competitor would have had his hands full in opposition. Furthermore, the hosts avenged their 1-4 loss to the gallegos at Balaidos, in round five, on September 23rd of last year.
But it was the manner in which the referee, Mr. Hernandez-Hernandez, officiated that turned a potentially competitive football match into a giveaway.
With the score at 1-1, in what had been a heavily one sided possession lead for Barcelona in the first half, the teams went into the locker room with the hosts somewhat crestfallen and the visitors carrying their heads high on their shoulders. Barcelona had opened the score off a superb Messi free-kick at the 28th minute, but the sides had mostly played to a draw that first half hour and the opening goal provided more relief than vindication for the Catalans. In fact, the following seventeen minutes saw Celta produce the better football, if in spurts, and earn a tie via Swedish striker John Guidetti’s converted penalty at the 39th minute. No doubt the momentum was with the visitors.
At halftime, Barca, at home, was in trouble. So they came out like gangbusters in the second half, and in the first two minutes and forty-eight seconds they thoroughly dominated Celta. Neymar, the game’s co-star- performer, along with Messi, created two great goal scoring opportunities, the first a one-on-one which goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez saved, and the second, a brilliant dribbling exhibition down Celta’s left goal line which resulted in a great feed in the box to Suarez, whose shot ultimately went off the opposite post. With this relentless attack from a highly motivated and superior team, Celta’s every possession was going to be critical, as much to provide goal scoring opportunities as to allow their defense a break from the pressure Barca was exerting.
So at the 47:48 mark, when Celta finally wrestled possession away from Barca, Josep Sene began a counter with open teammates in support. But Dani Alves ran right into him, obstructing play and sending the ball flying away. The counter was stopped dead in its tracks AND the foul was not called. So Barca regained possession. Count: one Celta counter opportunity, denied via one Barca illegal intervention, which was allowed to stand.
The Catalans controlled play to such an extent for the next three minutes that the ball only got past midfield three times, once when Barca passed the ball back to Gerard Pique, once when Celta tipped a pass away which Javier Mascherano controlled, and the third when, at the 50:48 mark, John Guidetti controlled the ball in a breakaway toward the left side of the Barca box, with but Pique between Guidetti and the goal.
The Swede went to ground via Pique’s fair physical marking, but the striker was emerging on the other side of the defender. Pique found himself with his back to a ball Guidetti was about to control. Only the Barca defender stretched his arm and handled the ball, ensuring it would not get past him and into Guidetti’s path. A clear hand ball. The infraction stopped another Celta counter, one by their team’s most dangerous scorer, one that had go-ahead-goal scoring potential. No call was made. And again Barca regained possession. Count: two Celta counter opportunities denied, via another Barca illegal intervention, which was allowed to stand.
At the 51:34 mark the ref was in the way of a Celta controlled recovery and the ball bounced off of him and away to Barca. Hard to blame the ref who must have been attempting to get out of the way, but the result kept the ball in the Celta half, extending Barca’s scoring chances for what was now nearing another minute after Pique’s hand ball. Count: three Celta counter opportunities, this one denied via a referee’s inadvertent intervention. The result was the same.
At the 51:44 mark, Celta recovered again, only Guidetti had the ball on the sideline and seemed poised to start another counter when Mascherano fouled him with a slide that bounced the ball off the striker. Not only was the foul not called but Barca was awarded the throw-in—still, yet, again, maintaining the ball on the Celta half. Count: four Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, which was allowed to stand.
At the 53:39 mark, after nearly two more minutes of Barca possession around Celta’s box had ensued, Daniel Wass intercepted the ball near the sideline and began the Celta counter. But Alves fouled Wass, stopping the possession and attack, and this time Barca was called for the foul. Count: five Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, which was finally called. The strategic result, of course, was still the same.
At the 55:57 mark, after another two minutes of Barca control, but with a single near-interception interruption, a Celta aerial clearance reached Guidetti who was marked by the much shorter Mascherano. But the striker was not seen to go upward, in fact he went nowhere near the ball, instead he seemed to, inexplicably, go away from it, while the diminutive defenseman regained possession. Replays showed Mascherano had grabbed and pushed the striker. Count: six Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention which was not called.
At this stage in the game, one might be excused to think it was time the ref noticed the trend—each time Barca’s opponent regained possession Barca did something illegal to stop the possession from progressing. Even if the foul was called the result was that the opposition never had a chance to build momentum in possession. The repeated fouls were in and of themselves yellow-card offenses. The fact that so many fouls occurred at the possession switch would indicate to a blind man that the occurrences were not coincidental, wouldn’t you think?
At the 58:22 mark, after another interval of several uninterrupted minutes of Barca possession, Messi’s wonder chip pass found Suarez who boomed away from close in for a pretty go-ahead goal. What a surprise, and it only took having almost continual possession for nearly a third of the half.
The next few minutes after the restart were contested ones as Celta attempted to recover from the scoreboard deficit. The teams actually traded possession for a refreshing few minutes, but each foray was short-lived.
At the 63:45 mark, when it became clear Celta was regaining confidence, getting over the set-back, and building momentum, Sergio Busquets stopped a dangerous Celta possession with an intimidating two-foot, stud-up slide into Wass, who had just recovered possession for Celta. When the call was made, Busquet’s teammates were still out of position. So, Sergio hung onto the ball while arguing the call with the ref. Once his teammates were in position, about 25 seconds later, Busquets threw the ball back—objectives accomplished. The obvious foul was called, the game delay was not, but the requisite yellow(s) was/were not awarded. Count: seven Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, or two, which were only partially sanctioned.
At the 64:10 mark, with action already stopped anyway, the ref allowed Celta’s substitute, who had been standing on the sidelines, to come in. The substitution was done quickly but still consumed another twenty seconds. The ref then restarted play. Busquets’ gambit garnered an added advantage as the stop in play put a damper on the Celta momentum for what amounted to a full minute of deflating stoppage.
At the 65:57 mark, after another prolonged Barca possession, Celta got a counter that turned into a Guidetti breakaway. The striker got into the box and turned toward goal, with a clear tying-goal opportunity about to develop, only to be illegally stopped by Mascherano. The defender was seen vying with the bigger striker for possession, and yet somehow forcing the towering striker away from goal. Eventually Guidetti took an awfully awkward, off balance shot at goal that reached the highest bleachers. Replays showed Mascherano grabbed and pushed the striker, a clear penalty, but no call was made. In fact, after the play, Mascherano was seen complaining to the ref that he, the innocent defender, had been fouled. Count: eight Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, which was not called.
But Celta was still trying to play this game—they were only one goal down—so they continued to challenge Barca.
At the 66:07 mark Celta’s Guadeloupian striker, Claudio Beauvue, was streaking toward goal, just reaching the box, at the right side of the half-moon, with a real chance at what could become the tying goal, when Jordi Alba came out of nowhere–actually streaked in from about ten yards away–to cut in front of the Celta man, obstructing his progress and sending the ball toward the sideline. An obvious foul the linesman and ref should have seen, but no call was made and play continued. Count: nine Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, which was not called.
The game, though, had turned into a contested affair against all odds and the next few minutes were testy. The sides were absorbing the fact that at this late stage in the match the game’s outcome still hung in the balance.
At the 71:48 mark, after fighting off a multi-minute-long Barca bout of possession, around the Celta box, the ball was cleared toward Wass who gathered himself to jump, in order to head the ball toward Guidetti, in what looked like a potential breakaway as Pique and Mascherano were out of position, too far up field. But as Wass attempted to elevate, the ever alert Busquets, standing right behind Wass, wrapped his arm around the Celta player’s neck, resting his arm on Wass’ shoulder, and preventing him from jumping. The ball went over Wass and onto Busquets who then used his opponent’s shoulder to get higher and head the ball back to his teammates. Hard to count how many fouls were involved in that one exchange. Count: ten Celta counter opportunities, denied via another Barca illegal intervention, or two, which were not called.
By then, the weary Celta team had begun to get the message. No matter what they did, Barca would either counter it with their superior skill or be allowed to do so illegally, and the result would always be in the host’s favor. Two minutes later, at the 74:31 mark, Suarez made it 3-1 and essentially ended the competition.
Within another two minutes Celta would replace Guidetti, throwing in the towel, and in response Barca would replace Iniesta who left at a glacial speed, hugging four teammates on his trek to the sideline. The match would get uglier for Celta, and at game’s end the statistics would record that Barca had two-thirds of possession, shots on goal, and shots on target, had won the match 6-1, and, most discouraging, was called for 10 fouls and no cards to Celta’s 16 fouls and four cards.