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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Real Madrid v Girona is huge game in title race – so why all the talk about referees?

Girona go to Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon — and victory over their title rivals would see the season’s big surprise package return to the top of La Liga.

But in the build-up to the match, the Catalan club’s preparations have not been helped by a particularly noisy week of controversy around refereeing and VAR in Spanish football.

For most of their history Girona have played in the lower divisions, only reaching the top flight for the first time in 2017-18, when they had a highest ever finish of 10th. They are currently second in the table — having led for several weeks already — two points behind leaders Madrid.

A team that began the season with the objective of avoiding relegation has taken a fantastic 17 wins, five draws and one defeat from the first 23 games of the season. With almost two-thirds of the campaign played, there is a growing feeling among Girona’s players that they really have a chance of a fantastic and historic achievement.

“They don’t want to say it, but they do believe that winning La Liga this year is possible,” says a source close to the dressing room — who, like others spoken to for this story, requested anonymity to protect relationships.

Unfortunately for Girona, they are set to go to the Bernabeu without key players Daley Blind and Yangel Herrera due to suspension, and coach Michel will have to watch from the stands.

This is a consequence of the team’s last outing, at home to Real Sociedad on Saturday, where the stresses of being involved in a title race added to the tension around the game.

The biggest talking point came when Herrera appeared to put his side 1-0 ahead near the end of the first half, and match referee Jesus Gil Manzano gave the goal. The VAR official Carlos del Cerro Grande then informed Gil Manzano that winger Savio — also known as Savinho — had been offside earlier in the move, so the goal should not stand.

Girona protested angrily. There had been 37 seconds of play between Savio’s offside position and Herrera’s header finding the net. Four different Real Sociedad players had touched the ball since, which arguably meant that a whole new phase of the game had begun, so VAR should not intervene. But Gil Manzano accepted the advice of his colleague, and the goal was ruled out.

The remainder of the game was very tense and tactical, against a Real Sociedad team also challenging in the top half of the table. Near the end of normal time, Michel was shown a red card for protesting what he felt was a foul on Savio.

Girona were also upset when Gil Manzano blew the final whistle, feeling more time should have been added as visiting captain Mikel Oyarzabal received medical treatment during stoppage time.

After the game, Michel was keen not to directly criticise Gil Manzano. However, he firmly argued that Herrera’s goal should have stood.

“It’s a mistake by the VAR,” said Michel. “You cannot re-referee an incident from 40 seconds previous. If you start to rewind through the whole game…”

Even before this weekend, a series of controversial recent refereeing decisions had put VAR in the spotlight — with a lot of attention especially on Real Madrid’s home victory over Almeria on January 21. After leaked audio of VAR deliberations from that match were published in the media, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) filed a police complaint and launched an internal investigation.

When on this Sunday evening Atletico Madrid had a goal disallowed against Real, former Girona right-back Pablo Maffeo, now elsewhere in La Liga at Real Mallorca, found the decision laughable.

Real Madrid themselves were angry at the officiating during the 1-1 ‘derbi’ draw against Atletico, feeling they should have had at least two penalties at 1-0 up. Pundits on Real Madrid’s official TV station severely criticised referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez.

Meanwhile, Barcelona coach Xavi has claimed that his team would also be in the title race if it were not for a series of decisions he feels have damaged their chances. Xavi has claimed the competition has been “adulterated” by Real Madrid TV pundits putting pressure on officials before and after games.

Almeria had been outraged by the three VAR calls that went against them in their trip to the Bernabeu last month, when Ancelotti’s team came from 0-2 down to win 3-2 and gain a crucial three points in the title race.

There were even questions in the country’s parliament this week, with opposition senator Vicente Azpitarte of the Partido Popular asking if the government was “satisfied with the image of the sport projected by the continuing controversies around the VAR system in Spanish football”.

Girona themselves have spent this week trying not to let anything affect their focus ahead of Saturday’s game, while also feeling the need to defend their club’s interests.

The club accepted that Herrera’s booking against Real Sociedad was issued for a clear foul and he would have to serve a suspension. They did, however, issue appeals both against Michel’s red card, and Blind’s yellow. The club’s legal team provided video evidence to the RFEF which they argued showed neither was actually guilty of offences described in the referee’s official report.


Girona lost an appeal against Michel’s red card (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

Gil Manzano wrote that Michel had been expelled for “leaving the technical area and repeatedly disputing one of my decisions’. Girona’s legal team said a red card was a “completely inappropriate” punishment for such actions, and that he had not disrespected or insulted anyone, just voiced disagreement with decisions.

The referee’s report said Blind was booked for “repeatedly making technical observations”. Girona maintained that the Dutchman had just asked the official, in English, “why only two minutes added on?” Their legal team provided a video they said showed he had just asked for “clarification”.

Nevertheless, the RFEF’s competition committee upheld both decisions on Wednesday, saying they could see no “manifest errors” in the referee’s descriptions of what had happened. Michel was suspended for two games, and Blind’s fifth yellow of the season was maintained, meaning he will serve an automatic one-match ban this weekend.

Girona might have taken their case further, to the RFEF’s appeals committee, although they were aware it is unlikely that this could all get sorted before Saturday. On Wednesday they decided not to do so, and so they will indeed be without Blind on the pitch, and Michel on the bench, at the Bernabeu.

In one of the twists that happen so often in Spanish football, the most high-profile case held so far in 2023-24 by the federation’s appeals committee was taken by Real Madrid, after last September’s reverse fixture against Girona at Montilivi. Late in that game, Madrid captain Nacho was shown a straight red card for a foul on Girona’s Portu.

He was initially banned for three games, but the appeals committee reduced it to two, so the defender was available for a La Liga Clasico at Barcelona. Which again goes to show that, within Spanish football, everybody defends their own interests, and uses whatever means they can to do so.

As a historically small club (albeit one part-owned by the City Football Group) Girona do not have the same experience or knowledge of the pressure points at the top of Spanish football. But they are having to learn fast.


Girona fans displaying a banner at their home match with Real Sociedad (Pedro Salado/Getty Images)

Towards the end of last Saturday’s game at Montilivi, the home crowd began to chant ‘Asi, asi, asi gana Madrid’ (‘That’s how Madrid win’). This chant has often been heard when rival supporters feel officials have favoured the Bernabeu outfit with decisions.

That the Montilivi crowd even thought to make the chant shows the changed circumstances their team is now operating in. In another situation, a draw at home to in-form Real Sociedad would be seen as an acceptable result, and there would not have been such tension around Herrera’s disallowed goal, or how much added time the referee was adding on. Wider political considerations, with a small Catalan team challenging the most powerful club in the Spanish capital, also add to the emotions.

Michel is admirably managing a situation nobody could conceivably have foreseen. For most of the squad, even finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League would be something special — “a unique achievement” according to one club source.

Girona’s staff and players have not allowed nerves to affect their performances, instead riding a wave of excitement and positivity in which individual and collective performances have been far above what anybody could have reasonably expected before the season started.

“Our league is a great league,” said Michel last weekend. “I want to value all that the teams do to make it the best product possible. And all the noise around the figure of the referee damages that.”

He is not wrong. It would be a real pity if one of the feel-good stories of European football this season was to be spoiled by the acrimony and polemic between competing interests that so often surround refereeing and VAR in La Liga.

(Top photo: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)



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