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Real Madrid, Barcelona title race has no conspiracies, Liverpool look rusty, Arsenal's self-inflicted loss

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Were Real Madrid lucky with Benzema's goal? (1:58)

Frank Leboeuf and Gab Marcotti question if there was a handball in the buildup to Real Madrid's winning goal. (1:58)

The Premier League return is in full swing, Italy's Serie A also resumed its 2019-20 season and Spain's title race is heating up. It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.

Jump to: Don't cry conspiracy in La Liga | Liverpool show rust in derby | Three-team title race in Italy? | Arsenal's self-inflicted loss | Dortmund face difficult summer | Chelsea superb vs. Villa | Bayern chase more records | Atalanta look great

Don't cry conspiracy in Real Madrid, Barcelona title race

Here we go. A title race this tight in La Liga, with the eternal rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona level on points with eight games remaining, can only mean one thing: controversy, conspiracy and bile.

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Gerard Pique hinted at it even before Barcelona were held to a 0-0 draw at Sevilla on Friday, saying how hard it was going to be for his club since they no longer controlled their own destiny ("It's going to be difficult for Real Madrid to lose points"). And Barca manager Quique Setien, speaking on Monday after Real Madrid's controversial 2-1 win over Real Sociedad, had his own loaded comment: "Everybody saw what happened, everybody can draw his own conclusions. In my opinion, Pique is a very intelligent person."

There's not much to read between the lines because it's all out in plain view. Madrid's victory at Anoeta featured three big calls -- arguably four, if you count Casemiro's elbow, which was somewhere between a yellow- and red-card offense -- and they all went against Real Sociedad.

Yet you can justify each one. There's no smoking gun proof that there was a miscarriage of justice.

Casemiro might have seen red, but equally, many referees won't send a guy off 22 minutes into a match. Vinicius' penalty was "soft," and while there may or may not have been contact, Diego Llorente's lunge doesn't get the ball and puts Vinicius off his shot. Mikel Merino is in an offside position and in the way of Adnan Januzaj's shot: it's a judgment call as to whether he's interfering with Thibaut Courtois and whether his little hop puts him off. As for Karim Benzema's goal that wasn't disallowed, IFAB rules for 2020-21 define the arm as beginning "at the bottom of the armpit." Leagues are free to adopt this interpretation for the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but it must be remembered that even under the old guidance, referees have plenty of discretion.

What it boils down to is that these are four close decisions that went Real Madrid's way, but not one of them, to me, is scandalous enough to scream of conspiracy. Equally evident is the fact that you'd feel somewhat more reassured -- precisely because there was so much interpretation in some of them -- if the referee had conducted an on-field review, rather than simply listening to VAR.

Complaining about referees has been around for as long as there have been journalists around to listen and fans around to get angry. It's a classic, and it works because it plants a seed of doubt in an official's mind, particularly when it comes to pre-emptive warnings. If you say "Gee, I hope Referee X isn't biased against us" before kickoff, it adds a layer of pressure to his job, making him aware that if he makes a mistake, folks will think he's biased.

Equally (and plenty of referees have spoken about this) there is such a thing as "psychological subjection," the idea that if you make a mistake that harms a bigger club that gets more coverage, it will get more attention and hurt your reputation more than if your mistake harms a smaller club. It's not that referees are prejudiced; if they're sure of themselves, they'll call it the way they see it. It's when they're not sure -- and in some cases, you can't be sure -- that they have to fight the urge to factor in the consequences of a wrong decision. That's why decisiveness is a key characteristic for match officials, just as much as getting things right. These are the sort of people that if you take them out to lunch, they'll glance at the menu and order straight away.

Real Madrid have won one league title in the past seven years, while also being crowned champions of Europe four times. I know a knockout competition is different from a league, but somehow if there is some big pro-Real Madrid conspiracy afoot, it's curious how it affects UEFA referees more than it does their Spanish colleagues.

I don't think this issue -- if the sniping and screw-turning on referees continues -- will ruin the run-in, at least not for me. The rivalry and regionalism and venom is part of the equation here. That said, I do think it's unnecessary. You have two clubs who have had up-and-down seasons, are not as good as they were a few years ago and who still have a Liga title to play for. That's more than enough to keep us watching.

Liverpool show some rust in Merseyside derby

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Nicol: Jurgen Klopp will be happy with a point

Steve Nicol explains why both Liverpool and Everton will be happy with a draw in their first game back.

Logic tells you to suspend judgement on any team in their first game back, and that applies to Liverpool's 0-0 draw against Everton as well. It's only the third time in 30 league games that they've dropped points, and they didn't play particularly well, showing plenty of rust. Roberto Firmino's sharpness is down, and perhaps it has to do with the fact that Mohamed Salah was on the bench and Takumi Minamino on the pitch: different runs, different movement, different quality.

Equally for a team where the fullbacks are so important in possession, having your first-choice left-back out and your second-choice left-back going off before halftime doesn't help and has a major knock-on throughout the side. Credit Everton, too: They created density in their defensive third, were unafraid to try to play through the press and could have snatched a win at the end.

We're only delaying the inevitable here: the title will come to Anfield after a 30-year absence. But seeing Liverpool play like this in a derby is a reminder of just how high the standards set before the shutdown really were.

Are Inter still in Serie A title race? Maybe ...

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How Inter's play shows they're still in the title race

Gab Marcotti reflects on Inter Milan's 2-1 win over Sampdoria and what it means for the Serie A title race.

So Antonio Conte reckons we have a three-horse race in Serie A. Mathematically, he's correct. After beating Sampdoria 2-1, Inter are six points behind Juventus and five behind Lazio. There are still 12 games to go, which is an eternity.

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I wouldn't have agreed with him, but having seen Juve's struggles in the Coppa Italia and having no idea what Lazio will be like when they resume their season, he might be correct. Certainly the Inter side that dominated Samp for long stretches and could easily have been up by four or five goals look like they can make up six points (or more) on this star-crossed version of Juve. Equally though, the Inter side that suddenly found themselves hanging on at the end, after not converting their chances and conceding a goal, look like the Jekyll-and-Hyde Inter of old.

That said, the current conditions -- football back after a long layoff, no fans, a hugely congested fixture list -- likely mean we'll see plenty of twists and turns as teams struggle to find rhythm and consistency. Perhaps Conte is right after all...

Arsenal have themselves to blame for defeat

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Burley: Frank Lampard has exciting list of options

Craig Burley says it's an exciting time to be a Chelsea fan with loads of young talent on the roster.

Bernd Leno's nasty injury and Matteo Guendouzi's tussle with Neal Maupay will dominate headlines for Arsenal, but their 2-1 defeat at Brighton was self-inflicted. Don't take my word for it -- ask their manager, Mikel Arteta, who said "the accident was provoked by us."

When you defend horrendously on a set piece and concede a last-minute goal in those circumstances, you only have yourself to blame. Arteta made six changes from the team that started against Manchester City while also putting Bukayo Saka in a different position.

You assume it has to do with rotation and wanting to get a look at everybody before the inevitable summer rebuild. At some point, though, he has to start thinking of building some kind of chemistry and identity, and that's hard to do when guys are coming in and out and you're shuffling formations.

I know that if Manchester City are banned from Europe, then the Europa League is just four points away. But at some point, you have to start thinking about the future and playing for next season. Arteta evidently isn't quite there yet, not because he doesn't want to be, but because he genuinely doesn't feel he has enough guys he trusts to be part of the long-term project.

Crucial summer for Dortmund's planning

In a parallel, non-Bayern universe, RB Leipzig hosting Borussia Dortmund could have been a title-decider. Instead, it confirmed what we already knew. Leipzig have largely checked out until the Champions League returns, turning on their style intermittently. And Dortmund remain an ode to inconsistency: dominating the first half, wilting in the second and then grabbing a 2-1 victory with a late, late winner.

Dortmund's sporting director Michael Zorc needs to think long and hard about the next steps for this squad, starting with Erling Haaland. He grabbed both goals in the win, taking his total to 13 in 14 league appearances and, overall, 16 in 17. That works out to an incredible goal every 75 minutes, all of them from open play. Just a reminder that the kid is still 19 and that not even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were putting up numbers like that before their 20th birthday.

The club have a lot of attacking talent around him, but he has to be the focal point going forward even if means making some painful decisions as a result.

Chelsea look superb vs. Villa

Despite going a goal down, Chelsea hit the ground running away to Aston Villa with a well-earned 2-1 win.

Don't let the narrow scoreline fool you: it was pretty much one-way traffic throughout. Frank Lampard mixed things up, perhaps with an eye towards the clash with Manchester City on Thursday -- Tammy Abraham and Reece James were on the bench, while Callum Hudson-Odoi wasn't quite match-fit and Jorginho was suspended -- but Mason Mount was in fine form and Chelsea were in solid control. The win extends their lead over fifth-place (Manchester United and Sheffield United) to five points, which is pretty critical regardless of Manchester City's CAS appeal.

One interesting wrinkle was the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who made his first start in more than a year. Lampard used him on the left side of a front three, though he often came inside. It says a lot about the injuries that have slowed him that at 24, there still is no consensus on how to get the best out of his talents. Putting him in a wide area where he can use his one-on-one ability, especially against teams who defend deep, is an intriguing option. Watch this space.

Bayern chasing records after clinching title

Last week I wrote about Bayern's eighth straight Bundesliga title and how it was at once remarkable -- given the hurdles, some of them self-inflicted, some of them less so, that they overcame -- and problematic (for the rest of the league). They're obviously still hungry, this time for records.

The 3-1 win over Freiburg means they're up to 96 goals scored in a single campaign, with one match to go. That's more than they accomplished in the Pep Guardiola era, and more than all but two teams in history: Jupp Heynckes' Treble winners got 98 in 2012-13, and the 1971-72 side managed 101. They'll have a chance to break those marks against Wolfsburg on the final day of the season.

Atalanta superb in first Serie A game back

Atalanta picked up where they left off, walloping Sassuolo 4-1. So much for the notion that the layoff was going to throw off their high-paced style. They're averaging nearly three goals a game, more than any other club in Europe's big five leagues.

How will they cope with the heat and games in quick succession? That's the question hanging over them. But given the way Gian Gasperini has been able to dole out playing time without losing intensity, you suspect their bench is deeper than it first appears. The gap they hold over Roma, who are fifth, is a healthy six points. Don't be surprised if they're still ahead at the end of the campaign.