Madrid, Saturday, 9:26pm: Marco Asensio advances into the penalty area and drills an angled shot, low into the bottom corner with his left foot. The crowd cheers. The player is more reserved, out of respect for Espanyol, his former team. He doesn’t know what to do. But soon, nobody does. Because referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz rules it out for offside. Confusion reigns. Replays show Asensio is on and after almost two minutes, VAR intervenes. The goal is good. This time, Asensio celebrates and Real Madrid win. 1-0.
Barcelona, Sunday, 9:20pm: Clement Lenglet and Pere Pons collapse in a heap on the turf at Camp Nou. At first glance, nobody is sure what has happened. But referee Jesus Gil Manzano runs to the side of the pitch to watch a replay and comes back with a red card for the Barcelona defender. Television images show the centre-back’s elbow catches the Girona midfielder in the face. It does not appear deliberate, but VAR sees the incident replayed and the referee is convinced. Girona take advantage to score twice and earn a 2-2 draw.
A tale of two VARs.
“Justice was done in the end,” Asensio said of his winner. And Real Madrid boss Julen Lopetegui added: “It was a legal goal and I’m happy that VAR gave it.”
So was the Bernabeu, anxious at times against an Espanyol side that made life surprisingly difficult for their team.
“There’s merit in coming here and making Madrid uncomfortable,” their coach, Rubi, said.
“We’re not going to win every game 5-0,” Raphael Varane noted. Indeed. And a year ago, they probably would not have won this match at all. “Real Madrid recover the Bernabeu,”
Marca said. Last season, they remembered, Los Blancos had dropped seven points from their opening three league games at home. This term, it’s three wins from three.
“The triumph of VAR,” AS said with some satisfaction on their front page on Sunday. “Asensio saves the Plan B,” was Marca’s offering.
Thanks to VAR. The technology helped the officials make the correct decision. All good. That is what it is for, after all.
But at Camp Nou, it proved less popular. Messi had given Barca the lead against Girona, but the visitors were back in it through Cristhian Stuani as Ernesto Valverde strangely delayed bringing on Samuel Umtiti until half-time after Lenglet's red card. And as the players went off amid a chorus of boos for the officials at the interval, Gerard Pique told Gil Manzano exactly what he thought in the tunnel.
Stuani then put Girona ahead as he bagged a brace (having also hit a double against Real Madrid earlier in 2018), but Pique later levelled for 2-2. It was the perfect scoreline for his ‘2/2’ hand celebration (which represents the birthdays of he and his partner Shakira – February 2nd), though far from ideal for Barcelona.
“Gironazo at Camp Nou,” AS said, choosing to ignore VAR this time. But the Catalan papers showed their frustration. “VAR halts Barca,” Mundo Deportivo said. And Sport went with a play on words: “BarVARity.” Pretty bad, but you got the idea.
The players were angry, too. “VAR should be used correctly and with the same criteria,” said Sergio Busquets, who was fouled late in the game just outside the box in an action which probably should have been reviewed, but was not. Arturo Vidal agreed. “VAR should be here to help,” he said. “Not to harm.”
“The red card conditioned the match,” Valverde complained. And he added: "It must be the first dismissal in which the player who's on the end of the foul has apologised as Pons did to Lenglet.”
"I did apologise [to Lenglet]," Pons admitted.
"I didn't notice the contact from the elbow and I offered my hand to him because I thought it was a foul by me at first.”
But Messi did not offer his hand to the referee at the end of the match. When the official sought a handshake with the Argentine after the final whistle, the forward just gave Gil Manzano a stern look. Huge jeers followed from the Camp Nou crowd. They were not amused.
In a tale of two decisions by the video assistant referee, the conclusion is that Real and Barca are joint-top of La Liga after five rounds of matches.
And while there are plenty of battles ahead, at the weekend, it was Madrid who won the VAR.