There were still thirteen minutes and three more games to go but inside Valdebebas it felt like the entire season was all coming down to this one decision, the fate of four teams in the hands of a single man. The night after Barcelona and Atlético Madrid had drawn 0-0, leaving Real Madrid in control of their own destiny, it was 1-1 between Zinedine Zidane’s side and Sevilla and there was a penalty at one end and a penalty at the other. Standing at the VAR screen, it was down to Juan Martínez Munuera to decide which to give.
As Eder Militao had leapt to clear a Sevilla corner, the ball had struck his outstretched arm. There had been shouts but the referee had not seen it and suddenly Madrid were breaking through the pitch, wide space opening before them. Karim Benzema went round Yassine Bono, and was brought down. Racing up behind, Munuera pointed to the spot and a huge, relieved cheer went up from the stands. It had been a difficult night for Madrid but it seemed that at the end of a season of survival they were going to find a way again, clinching a victory that would take them top.
The referee though halted everything, the title race put on hold as he put a finger in his ear. Called to the VAR screen, he watched as subs, staff and players piled on the pressure, shouting and trying to turn him. Eventually he stepped back, drew a square and pointed to the spot in the Madrid area, giving the handball that came first not the foul that came next. Ivan Rakitic stepped up and scored the goal that was set to give Sevilla a huge victory that would almost end Madrid’s title hopes and reawaken theirs.
Instead, a late twist saw Toni Kroos score a deflected equaliser, via Eden Hazard, on 93.43 and Casemiro bent a shot agonisingly past the post in the 96th minute to leave every team where they were, just another week closer to the line, another set of hurdles cleared. The table reads: Atlético 77, Barcelona 75, Madrid 75, Sevilla 71 and ultimately all four of them will feel like this was a weekend of missed opportunity. Madrid most of all but Barcelona and Atlético too and even Sevilla who had impressed for so long here, were two minutes away from a victory that would have brought genuine hope that they might be allowed back into the race.
Taking possession and control, Sevilla also took an early lead with a wonderfully worked free kick, Suso playing short to Jesús Navas who cut inside and crossed.Rakitic’s header dropped the ball at the feet of Fernando who cut back past Casemiro and scored the goal that took them into half time deservedly in the lead and in the league too. Madrid needed a reaction and they did. Sevilla, so calm until then, felt the pressure, but continued to play. Madrid played too, this game still capable of going either way.
All the more so when Marco Asensio was sent on and within a minute he had levelled this, first time in at the near post from Kroos’s measured pass. The move had begun with Benzema winning the ball in the centre circle. Madrid had twenty-five minutes to get another, to reach for top spot; soon they thought they had, Benzema brought down by Bono. But then came the moment that changed the game and might have changed everything – or perhaps nothing. Eventually the referee stepped from the screen, everyone waiting to see which way he would turn. He went right and as all about him people lost their heads, Rakitic kept his.