Taking off Casemiro for Isco against Villarreal proved to be a winning move for Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane.
It was almost a perfect weekend for Barcelona, who once again did not play at its best but did enough to win 2-1 away at Atletico Madrid thanks to a late Lionel Messi winner. That put Luis Enrique’s side atop La Liga, albeit briefly, before Real Madrid’s tricky match at Villarreal. And so it proved: the Yellow Submarine roared into a deserved 2-0 lead and looked on course to do the Catalans a huge favor. That is, until Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane made a tactical switch that left some scratching their heads; in a midfield areas already bossed by Villarreal, Zidane removed holding player Casemiro and brought on Isco, who played as No. 10.
The change made an enormous difference and Madrid equalized through Gareth Bale. The turning point came when referee Gil Manzano awarded Madrid a controversial penalty when the ball appeared to bounce off the arm of Villarreal skipper Bruno. Cristiano Ronaldo converted the penalty and it was another substitute, Alvaro Morata, who scored a late winner to cap an incredible, and important, comeback. It puts Madrid back to one point clear of Barcelona with a game in hand.
“At 2-0 down you have to change something,” Zidane said after the game. “We changed it and it went well for us, the players who came on changed the game.”
The penalty decision caused anger across town where Sport newspaper called the result a “dubious comeback” while El Mundo Deportivo claimed “the referee assists to help Madrid into top spot”. Gerard Pique tweeted about referees favoring Madrid, to which Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos responded: “We already know about Pique's world, where everything's a plot against him. The referees have a difficult job, we have to try and make them more comfortable. Referees sometimes give you and others take away, but you have to be prepared for everything.”
The story took on another aspect when Villarreal president Fernando Roig claimed that he had seen Manzano and his assistants leave the stadium holding Real Madrid bags after the game. “That's not right, it seems to me,” Roig said. “I have not said anything to Gil Manzano. I don’t know if he sees yellow better than white.”
The row will rumble on for a few days. The real takeaway is that the power on Madrid’s bench can turn a game its way. At the moment, that’s not the same case for Barcelona.