Zinedine Zidane’s side benefitted from a number of marginal calls against Real Sociedad as they recorded the win they needed to go top of La Liga
“It will be difficult to win this league. We will do everything we can. But from what I’ve seen in recent weeks, it would be a surprise if Real Madrid drop points.”
Some took the statement to mean that Pique believed that the Blancos are a superior side to the current crop at Camp Nou – an argument that holds some water given the performances of both teams in the 11 days since top-flight football returned to Spain.
Others, though, felt that the former Spain defender was pointing a finger squarely at La Liga officials after Madrid were the beneficiaries of some debatable refereeing calls in their first two matches back following the resumption.
Against Eibar in seven days ago, Toni Kroos opened the scoring for Madrid with an arrowed drive from 25 yards, only for replays to suggest that Karim Benzema was in an offside position before playing his part in the build-up.
After a long stoppage, the video assistant referee decided that the ex-France striker was in fact onside, though still images showed it was by the barest of margins.
Fast-forward to Thursday, and Valencia believed they had taken the lead at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano through Rodrigo Moreno, only for the goal to be controversially chalked off after Maxi Gomez was deemed to be narrowly offside and in the path of Raphael Varane as the centre-back looked to intercept the pass that led to the goal.
Madrid would go onto win 3-0 over Los Che, and they knew another victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday would see them leapfrog Barca at the top of the table in what has turned into the most topsy-turvy title race in many years.
If Pique’s comments were designed to put pressure on the officials, though, then they did not work. Instead, Madrid were again thankful to VAR as they picked up a result that could prove crucial in Zinedine Zidane’s side winning a just a second league title since 2012.
After a goalless first 45 minutes that Madrid dominated without creating many clearcut chances, the visitors were celebrating just five minutes into the second half at Anoeta after Vinicius Junior – who was outstanding throughout – jinked his way into the penalty area before falling under pressure from Diego Llorente.
The decision was checked by VAR, and while the contact between Vinicius and Llorente was minimal, it would have been harsh to suggest that any error made by the on-field official was clear and obvious. Even so, the die had been cast in terms of which way the close calls would be going.
The spot-kick allowed Sergio Ramos the opportunity to become the defender with the most La Liga goals ever , and the Madrid captain obliged by rolling the ball into the bottom corner for his 68th goal in the competition.
Ramos now has seven league goals this season – only Benzema has more for Madrid – while this was the 20th successive time he has converted from the penalty spot. On a night of controversy, it was not a surprise to see one of football’s most divisive individuals play their part.
That proved to be Ramos’ final act of the evening as he limped off with a knee injury shortly afterwards, and, without the leader of Madrid’s defence on the pitch, Sociedad looked to find a way back in.
They thought they had it when Adnan Januzaj smashed a 20-yard strike past Thibaut Courtois into the bottom corner, only for the offside flag to go up as the ex-Manchester United man wheeled away in celebration.
The linesman believed Mikel Merino, who was clearly offside, to be obstructing the view of Courtois as the shot came in. The Belgium goalkeeper – and, more importantly, the VAR official – shared the viewpoint, but few on the Sociedad bench could quite believe they were not level.
That frustration turned to downright anger moments later as Madrid swept down the other end of the pitch, with Benzema finishing off the move with a shot on the turn that wrong-footed goalkeeper Alex Remiro.
Sociedad’s defenders immediately appealed en masse for handball, with replays suggesting Benzema did, in fact, control the ball somewhere between the top of his arm and his shoulder before finding the net.
As previously, though, VAR ruled in Madrid’s favour, and though Merino pulled a goal back with seven minutes left, Zidane’s side stood firm to move top of the Liga table with eight games still to play by virtue of their superior head-to-head record over Barca.
“We’re angry rather than sad,” said ex-Borussia Dortmund midfielder Merino said of the result post-match. “I think I was at least five metres from the goalkeeper when I was flagged offside. We have to accept what happened.”
Sociedad may be willing to forgive and forget, but for Barcelona such marginal decisions look set to be the difference between defending their title and losing it to their greatest rivals.
Barca must, of course, take some responsibility themselves, with their performances since Quique Setien’s arrival at the club in January on the whole well below the level expected in Catalunya.
Even if Barcelona can step it up, there is a feeling now that, whether fairly or not, the stars are aligning for Madrid.
With luck on their side, Zidane’s team will take some stopping.