Barcelona received another incredible gift on Saturday against Espanyol, adding fuel to the fire of conspiracy theorists in Madrid.
The minute Iturralde Gonzalez was assigned to work the Catalan derby, Real Madrid fans should have been on alert. Gonzalez is quite simply the worst referee in Spain, if not all of Europe. Then again, few expected Barcelona to need much help against an awful Espanyol side.
Mauricio Pochettino might be out of a job soon, but the Espanyol boss can be proud of the way his team performed at the Camp Nou. Los Perequitos gave Barcelona all it could handle, despite missing a number of key players. On the balance of play, they probably deserved a draw, but the visitors couldn't overcome the latest display of incompetence from Gonzalez.
In perhaps the worst refereeing decision of the season in Spain – and there have been plenty to choose from – he pointed to the spot late in the first half after Xavi tumbled over in the box. Replays revealed Espanyol's Raul Baena hardly made contact with the Barcelona playmaker. It was business as usual for Gonzalez who has whistled 95 penalties in his career, the most of any referee in La Liga history.
The last six times he has been in charge of a Barcelona match, the Blaugrana have been awarded five penalties, a fact not lost on the Madrid media. With Lionel Messi sidelined due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic smashed home the spot kick to seal a very hollow win for Pep Guardiola's side, even if it assures Barcelona will be in first place at the winter break.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta were not crisp enough in their passing to break down a well-organized Espanyol defense, and Thierry Henry is getting old before our very eyes. Barca's back line was split open several times on the counter, as Victor Valdes turned in his best game of the season to preserve the victory. Such a labored performance had to be a relief for Manuel Pellegrini.
Pellegrini caused a bit of controversy this week when he remarked that Madrid fans wouldn't stand for a team that played like Barcelona. It was a commentary on the lack of patience at the Bernabeu, but was interpreted in many quarters as a dig at the Catalan giants. He risked looking ridiculous if Barcelona turned in one of its vintage displays, and Madrid struggled against Valencia.
But Real responded with a brilliant 3-2 win at the Mestalla, achieved without Cristiano Ronaldo or Kaka. The Merengues overcame a terrible outing by Iker Casillas, at fault on both Valencia goals, and a first-half injury to Pepe, who will be lost for the season. His replacement Ezequiel Garay actually supplied the winner seven minutes from time.
Karim Benzema tormented Valencia's defense all night, forming a lethal partnership with two-goal hero Gonzalo Higuain, as Madrid was the superior team for most of the match. The loss dropped Los Che back to fourth place after Sevilla handed Sporting Gijon its first home defeat of the season, thanks to a superb strike from a rejuvenated Frederic Kanoute.
Elsewhere, Mallorca and Villareal picked up important road victories to move up the table, but the weekend was not as positive for Real Zaragoza. Following a 2-1 setback to Athletic Bilbao, Marcelino Garcia became the third manager to be let go this season. Reserve team coach Jose Aurelio Gay takes over on an interim basis. His first game in charge is against Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Tilting at Windmills (Barcelona vs. Madrid Referee report card)
The bogus penalty Barcelona received on Saturday was more than enough ammunition for the Madrid press, but folks in the capital were also unhappy with the rough treatment Real players were subjected to against Valencia. Jeremy Mathieu could well have been sent off for an awful challenge on Karim Benzema in the first half, and Carlos Marchena was also fortune to finish the match.
But the focus was, of course, on the events earlier in the day at the Camp Nou, as newspapers in Madrid produced all kinds of statistics regarding penalty decisions that have gone Barcelona's way in recent seasons, specifically at the hand of Iturralde Gonzalez. For once, the paranoia seemed justified.
Don Quixote (Player of the Round) – Frederic Kanoute, Sevilla
To think Kanoute was supposed to accept a much smaller role this season. But injuries to Luis Fabiano and the awful slump of Alvaro Negredo, who missed two great chances against Sporting, have shifted the focus back to the 32-year-old. Manolo Jimenez will need Kanoute to maintain his current form, as Fabiano is not expected back until after the winter break.
The Impossible Dream (Goal of the Round) – Chori Castro, Mallorca
When Osasuna lined up to take a corner against Mallorca with the match still scoreless early in the second half, it was hard to imagine just seconds later Jose Antonio Camacho's side would be trailing. But that's exactly what happened, as a long clearance found Uruguayan Chori Castro, who cut into the middle and rifled a left-footed rocket into the upper corner from the edge of the area.
Castro has been a revelation this season. His incredible strike gave Mallorca its first away victory of the season, and a first-ever win in Pamplona. Mallorca is now fifth in the standings, just one point behind Valencia for the final Champions League spot. It was Osasuna's second straight home loss, after falling to Valencia three weeks ago.
No wonder Racing fans were so glad to see Miguel Angel Portugal return to the bench following the dismissal of Juan Carlos Mandia in mid-November. Portugal is working his magic once more, as Racing picked up a second consecutive victory, knocking off Xerez 3-2 on Sunday. It was the team's first win of the season at El Sardinero, and Portugal had a big hand in the result.
The first half was very even and the two sides went into the locker room tied 1-1. But the introduction of Manuel Arana after the break, and Alexandre Geijo later on in the second half, made the difference. Arana scored a fantastic second goal, and Geijo caused all sorts of problems for the Xerez defense, as Racing finally climbed out of the relegation zone.
Rocinante (Goat of the Round) – Diego Forlan, Atletico Madrid
So much for Atletico Madrid showing signs of life. Two straight home defeats have the club back in full-crisis mode. Most of the players came up short in a horrible performance against Villarreal, but Forlan struggled the most. The absence of Sergio Aguero placed the onus squarely on the Uruguayan, and he was invisible against his former team.
After a difficult start to the season, Forlan seemed to be back on track with three goals in the last four league games. He was not helped by a lack of service on Sunday, but more is expected from a two time golden boot winner. It was also an evening to forget for midfielder Maxi Rodriguez, who could be experiencing his final days at the club.
Miguel Cervantes (Quote of the weekend)
"If the play involving Xavi is a penalty, every match should have 10 or 12 penalties."
– Espanyol sporting director Ramon Planes not too pleased with the decision that went against his team at the Camp Nou.
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