Real Madrid and Barcelona get the calls; Neville still seeks first win
Dermot Corrigan recaps what you need to know from the midweek's La Liga action, in which the top three all won and Gary Neville failed to win again.
1. Real Sociedad wronged at Bernabeu
Under-pressure Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez spoke of victimisation ahead of La Liga's return this midweek, talking about a "campaign" against him, club president Florentino Perez, and the team.
There was certainly a wronged side during Madrid's 3-1 win over Real Sociedad on Wednesday afternoon. But it was the visitors.
La Real were the better, more coherent side for long spells, only for referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez to award two debatable penalties to the home team, after missing a much clearer foul by Pepe on Jonathas at the other end. Visiting president Jokin Aperribay was so enraged that he told Gonzalez Gonzalez at half-time he was going to make a police report for "robbery".
Benitez appeared not to have noticed these mistakes when he spoke afterwards. Instead he maintained his team had controlled the game and played well, showing character exemplified by Cristiano Ronaldo bouncing back from missing his first penalty to score the second spot-kick and later rifle in the game's key goal.
The three points means Perez is likely to hold fire on making a managerial change at least until after Sunday evening's trip to Valencia. But Benitez might be advised to hold off on talk of people unfairly criticising him or his side for a bit.
2. Barca also get help
The referee also had a central role in Barcelona's ultimately comfortable 4-0 win at home to Real Betis on Wednesday evening.
The first half hour was pretty even until Inaki Vicandi Garrido was the only person in the ground to see a foul by Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adan, who collided with Lionel Messi as he punched a cross away.
The official then missed Neymar connecting twice with the ball as he slipped and sent his spot-kick against the bar. Garrido was also oblivious to Ivan Rakitic pushing Heiko Westermann as the Betis defender knocked the rebound to the net.
Betis coach Pepe Mel and assistant Roberto Rios were sent to the stands for their protests, from where they watched Barca ease to victory with further goals from Messi -- in his 500th Barca game -- and Luis Suarez, who is now leading the pichichi top scorer race with 15.
"I played all my life as a centre-forward and would have loved a penalty every time a keeper punched a cross," said Mel afterwards.
Meanwhile, with his team top of the table, having won five trophies and scored 180 goals in 2015, Luis Enrique at least accepted Vicandi Garrido had erred: "It's difficult being a referee," the Barca coach said.
3. Simeone knows what he's doing; Neville is still learning
AS' match report was headlined "The bench saves Atleti again," after goals in the 88th and 90th minutes from Angel Correa and Antoine Griezmann brought a 2-0 win at Rayo Vallecano that kept Atletico Madrid in second.
With starting centre-forward Fernando Torres stretching his run without scoring to 17 games, the game looked headed for stalemate but Atletico coach Diego Simeone kept changing things and replacement Thomas Partey set up fellow substitute Angel Correa to fire home with just two minutes remaining. Another sub, Jackson Martinez, then provided the clincher for Griezmann.
Tactical switches were less successful for Valencia coach Gary Neville in Thursday afternoon's 1-0 defeat at Villarreal. After his team were defensively shaky in his first few games, and with more injuries to deal with, Neville rolled out a new 3-5-2 formation at El Madrigal, with mixed results.
A tight game was decided by a superb free kick from Villarreal captain Bruno Soriano midway through the second half. Neville reacted with innovative substitutions but his team did not improve with forward Santi Mina at right-wing back or winger Pablo Piatti in the midfield three.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
4. Race for fourth is tight
Although the top three positions were more than likely sewn up before the season even started, the race to be "best of the rest" and claim the final Champions League spot looks likely to be very close.
Villarreal go into 2016 in fourth after those three points against neighbours Valencia. Celta Vigo slip to fifth after losing 1-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao, who themselves are picking up form after a difficult start to the season.
Sevilla's seventh straight home win, 2-0 against Espanyol, sees Unai Emery's team also well positioned. Deportivo, who drew 0-0 at Getafe, and Eibar, 2-0 winners over Sporting Gijon, remain in the mix but will surely fade away.
Meanwhile, Neville's Valencia are 10th, with just two points from his three games in charge, and look unlikely to charge up the table any time soon.
5. Changing coach works sometimes
Las Palmas and Levante were the first two Liga clubs to sack their coaches this season and the results of the changes have been quite different.
Las Palmas' 4-1 hammering of Granada was a third win in their last four home games. It saw Quique Setien's increasingly confident side climb out of the drop zone for the first time in months and confirmed the club's upswing in fortunes since Paco Herrera was let go in late October.
By contrast, Levante could manage just one shot on target all game while losing 1-0 at home to Malaga. New coach Rubi has managed just five points from his first eight games in charge, which is an even worse record than his predecessor Lucas Alcaraz.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan