Contentious red card sees Atlético beaten and deadlock at the top of La Liga after Real Madrid and Barcelona both win
There was a double bill on this weekend. On Saturday night they were showing Texeira I and on Sunday night it was Texeira II. From the howling wind to the driving rain, the dark plot unfolded, a story of tension and intrigue. You could almost hear the deep, gravelly voice of the cinema announcer: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back onto the field ... Texeira II: Return of the Referee." Here was the sequel and the stakes were high. They thought they had seen the back of him but no. Another day, another victim, thanks to a dramatic twist: there are two of them. Get this: the bad guy is the bad guy's brother.
Yes, Spain really does have two referees with the same name. Yes, they are brothers. And yes, they really do call them Texeira Vitienes I and Texeira Vitienes II, Texeira for short. This weekend they really did take charge of the round's two most important games and in order too, first Texeira I and then 23 hours later Texeira II. José Antonio Texeira Vitienes and Fernando Texeira Vitienes were born a year apart, in July 1970 and July 1971 respectively; this weekend they blew a day apart and, never mind Leo Messi or José Antonio Verza, Dani Aranzubía or Andrés Iniesta, they blew the title race wide open too.
Or so you'd think. The week had started with days of hysterical coverage of Madrid's fight over Cristiano Ronaldo's red card against Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés, a fight that totally eclipsed the game itself - which, in case you hadn't read, and you probably hadn't, was superb - and it had ended with Ayza Gámez, the referee who sent him off and then wrote up his report all wrong, being dumped in the "freezer". Now it was the Texeiras' turn.
Now there's nothing new about that of course. Referees have long been promoted to centre stage. The country's best-selling newspaper put the head of one inside a target and called him Madrid's executioner. There are furious mass debates and decisions get replayed over and over - more than the goals ever are - while every show, every paper, has a refereeing "expert", the most famous of whom is a linesman famous for cocking it up, and the media invariably cries foul … when the foul is against them and sometimes even when it's not a foul at all. Mistakes are not mistakes but conspiracies; they're also decisive.
But then, this was something else. It took Atlético Madrid 18 years to climb up to the top of the table and it took just six days for them to climb down again. Defeated once all season, they were defeated twice in a week: first by Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, then by Almería in the league on Saturday night. By Almería and Texeira I, that is: the referee overlooked two possible penalties for Atlético (and one against them); ignored a spine-chilling and potentially leg breaking two-footed lunge from Hélder Barbosa on Tiago, carried off injured having just come back from a month's lay-off; didn't send off Fernando Soriano despite him committing eight fouls in 58 minutes; and did send off Atlético's goalkeeper Dani Aranzubía for having the temerity to make a save.
"There are no excuses," Diego Simeone insisted, but others made them for him. Atlético had not had a single shot on target until 15 minutes before the end and that was not exactly dangerous. Almería confronted Atlético the way teams are increasingly confronting Atlético: rarely stepping forward, determined not to let them counter-attack, not worried about attacking themselves. Diego Costa found little space; the early runs from Manquillo, attacking from right-back, had dried up; and the player most likely to find a way through, Diego Ribas, had been withdrawn just before. The wind swirled and the ball floated all over the place. Atlético were without David Villa, Felipe Luis and Koke. They were also without goalkeeper Thibault Courtois. In his place was Dani Aranzubía. The last time Aranzubía had played at Almería in the first division, he scored a 95th-minute header, becoming the first keeper ever to score a La Liga goal from open play. This time, it ended differently.
It all happened in a few minutes. Aleix Vidal broke away and hit both posts; then Verza took a short corner with Suso and curled a cross towards the far post that became a brilliant shot, swinging over Aranzubía and into the corner; next Vidal was through, only to scuff his shot; and finally Aranzubía was given a back pass. First he controlled it, then he lost control. Jonathan Zongo got on top of him and challenged. The ball rebounded off him and ran across towards the empty goal, keeper and striker giving chase, a desperate three-yard dash. Aranzubía got ahead and dived onto the ball, grabbing it to his chest, relieved.
Until, that is, Texeira Vitienes I blew his whistle, pointed to the spot and pulled out the red card. Atlético's captain, midfielder Gabri, put on the gloves but could not stop the penalty. Six minutes had passed from the first goal to the second, from being top to being third. Even a draw would have been bad news; a defeat was a disaster. Real Madrid, 4-2 winners over Villarreal just before, had climbed above their neighbours and Barcelona would too. The two Madrid teams were level on points but Real's goal difference, the deciding factor until everyone has played everyone twice, is +41 to Atlético's +40. At the end of the season, head-to-head records will decide. And so far Atlético lead that 1-0.
If Simeone was saying little, Tiago complained that "strange things are happening: there were things that could have changed the result." He continued: "I'm not talking about a black hand, but there are episodes ..." Others went further. "Texeira I and Aranzubía defeated Atlético," ran the cover of AS, its match report running under the headline: "Bad Atlético, worse referee". El Mundo Deportivo, the Catalan newspaper with the Atlético Madrid supplement to help it sell in the capital, was more explicit: "Hands up!", its front page ran. "The dictionary does not have enough words to define what happened in Almería ... Atlético were top for as long as Texeira wanted them to be."
In AS, Iñako Díaz Guerra described the refereeing as "demented", describing Texeira Vitienes I as "embarked upon a battle to the death with his brother to see who can be the worst referee in the family. We've not seen a fight so savage since Ali vs Frazier."
The second round came 24 hours later, in the swirling rain of the Sánchez Pizjuán as Sevilla faced Barcelona. It was time for Texeira Vitienes II. It was also, the Barcelona manager Tata Martino had warned, the hardest trip Barcelona had left this season. Barcelona had won just one in four league games, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fábregas were left out, and Messi hadn't scored from open play since September.
For a while it looked like Martino was right. Sevilla were a goal up inside quarter of an hour, scored by Alberto Moreno and made, as so often, by Ivan Rakitic. Six minutes later they hit the post, this time from Carlos Bacca's header. And just after the half hour, Martín Montoya was blown for a foul throw, which seemed to say it all about Barcelona's unease. This threatened to be a defeat and a heavy one. Sevilla continued to make, and miss, good chances and Víctor Valdés made a vital save on 42 minutes. At that point, the shots on target count read: Sevilla 4-1 Barcelona.
The score, though, was 1-1. Barcelona had equalised in the 33rd minute and it all started with a free kick for a challenge by Nico Pareja on Messi, in which although he had gone flying through the water, sliding across the pitch and taking Messi with him, he had won the ball. Messi took the free kick and Alexis Sánchez scored a "header" with his back and from an offside position. Ten minutes later, Messi scored a brilliantly taken second, created with an incisive counter, and five minutes into the second half he got the third. Cesc Fabregas made it 4-1 in the dying minutes. 4-1. It had seemed impossible not long before.
Ultimately, Barcelona played extremely well in the second half. Xavi got control back. While others slid, Iniesta glided. And then, there was Messi. In midweek the Argentinian coach Ángel Cappa had suggested that Messi looked like he had lost a bit of the joy for football, a touch of the "madness". He had appeared apathetic of late, slow, uninterested and playing deeper, as if keeping out of the way. He had appeared apathetic here too, but then suddenly, with two flashes of his left boot, there he was again. The celebration didn't exactly say apathy either. Suddenly, he was in the middle of everything.
But, as Martino admitted: "I'm aware of the fact that we could have been 2-0 down." And the opening question for Unai Emery started: "was the referee decisive?" Emery's response was interesting and could prompt a worthwhile debate, if anyone can be bothered to have it: he talked less about concrete decisions, more about concepts. Yet he also admitted: "it is all born there, with Nico's challenge."
The reaction was predictable. Neither Sport nor El Mundo Deportivo shouted, but Marca ran a poll, asking its readers: was Texeira II decisive in Barcelona's win? So far, just over 50% say yes. As for the Seville-based newspaper Estadio Deportivo, it screamed: "Another robbery." It continued: "Texeira II put Barcelona back in the game when Sevilla were far superior." AS's headline claimed: "Texeira II takes Barcelona top."
Only just. The league has not been this close this late in the season for 21 years; with 15 matches left, all three teams are on 57 points. On Saturday morning, Atlético were top. On Saturday night, Real Madrid were top. And on Sunday night Barcelona were top. Top of the bill though were Texeira I and Texeira II: The Referee Returns.
* Bale Watch. Not so much the name of a section as a piece of advice that the Villarreal defender Dorado suicidally ignored. The game was only six minutes old when Bale robed him, raced into the area and clipped a lovely finish over Sergio Asenjo. Twenty minutes later, he provided a right footed ball for Karim Benzema to make it 2-0. That's eleven goals and nine assists for the Welshman so far this season. Bale was superb and so too were Jesé - again - and Luka Modric, as Madrid won 4-2. Modric is arguably this season's best player, even if he didn't score and thus ruined a potential ex-Spurs hat-trick after Bale got the opener and Gio Dos Santos curled in a lovely free kick in the second half to make it 3-2.
Villarreal's first had been a beauty too, thumped in by Mario. At 2-1 and 3-2 it looked, briefly, like Villarreal might have a chance and they were the first goals Madrid had conceded at home this year. Not that the coach Marcelino was impressed. The opening question in the press conference ran: "satisfied with the performance...". Marcelino simply stared down his man and, as the tumbleweed blew past, replied: "No."
* "We're a pain, not a nice team to play against," said Levante's coach, Joaquín Caparrós. Another 0-0, another brilliant performance from the goalkeeper Keylor Navas. This time at Real Sociedad.
* Maybe there's hope for Rayo Vallecano yet. They beat Málaga 4-1 on Saturday night, only their second win in 10, and are now four points away from safety. And two of the four goals were absolutely wonderful: the first and the fourth, both scored by Iago Falqué.
* Suits you, sir. Has Juan Antonio Pizzi finally got a suit, and a team, that fits? Valencia still don't have a new owner and one of their signings, Otamendi, didn't get concluded in time so has had to go off on loan until the summer, but no one was busier in the winter window than them and there are tentative signs of a recovery. They hammered Betis 5-0 and have now gone four unbeaten, including that 3-2 win at Camp Nou.
* Slipin' and a slidin', the most fun was at Valladolid, which isn't something you can say often. Mud and blood and four goals.
Results: Espanyol 1-0 Granada, Valencia 5-0 Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano 4-1 Málaga, Real Madrid 4-2 Villarreal, Almería 2-0 Atlético Madrid, Osasuna 2-0 Getafe, Sevilla 1-4 Barcelona, Valladolid 2-2 Elche, Real Sociedad 0-0 Levante. Monday: Celta-Athletic Bilbao.