Real Madrid's Luka Modric holds his Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) award as European Footballer of the Year as he poses with his teammates prior of he Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Dec 15, 2018. (MANU FERNANDEZ / AP PHOTO)
MADRID - Matchday 16 in Spain's La Liga saw Barcelona claim their second successive away win, while the other three sides in the top four all won. Here are a few things we learned this weekend.
1. Lack of goals hurting Real Madrid
Although Real Madrid flew off to the World Club Cup on Sunday on the back of a 1-0 win at home to Rayo Vallecano, they probably had the sound of the boos they received from their fans at full time still ringing in their ears.
Although Madrid carved out enough chances to beat 19th-placed Rayo by more goals, those chances went begging and it was only thanks to a spectacular double save from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois that they held on for the win.
It was the same story against bottom of the table Huesca a week previously - missed chances and Courtois making vital saves.
Although a keeper's job is to make saves, the time may come that Madrid pay the price for wasted chances such as these.
2. Messi still a class act
Last weekend saw Lionel Messi score two free kicks as FC Barcelona defeated city rivals Espanyol, and Sunday saw him go one better with a hat-trick as his side won 5-0 away to a Levante side that have been difficult to beat of late.
Levante's Macedonian midfielder Enis Bardhi (left) vies with Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi during the Spanish League football match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia on Dec 16, 2018. (JOSE JORDAN / AFP)
There was an air of revenge over the win, after Levante had ruined Barca's hopes of remaining unbeaten last season, but once Messi clicked into gear, there was only going to be one winner this time around.
In addition to his hat-trick, Messi also teed up Luis Suarez for Barca's opening goal and Gerard Pique for the fifth of the night. The Argentinian has now scored 50 goals in 2018, and he and Suarez have netted more goals this season than Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and 14 other clubs in La Liga. And some still doubt his ability.
3. Betis getting it right again
Real Betis had a slow start to the season, as several new arrivals took time to adapt to head coach Quique Setien's passing game. But their win away at Barcelona on November 11th marked a turning point, and the Seville-based side has now won four of their last five games to climb to fifth in the table.
Sunday saw them dispatch Espanyol 3-1 in Barcelona, and had Giovani Lo Celso not missed an earlier penalty the margin of victory could have been even more comprehensive. By contrast, Espanyol's season has gone into freefall, with five defeats in their last five games.
Betis have two winnable games at home coming up before they take on Real Madrid in a game that will certainly be worth watching.
4. Is VAR working?
While the introduction of the VAR decision review system to La Liga has largely been welcomed, recent matches have shown that it still needs tweaking.
In this June 22, 2018 file photo, referee Matt Conger from New Zealand watches the Video Assistant Referee system, also known as VAR, during the 2018 World Cup Group D match between Nigeria and Iceland at the Volgograd Arena in Volgograd, Russia. (THEMBA HADEBE / AP)
Saturday saw Eibar awarded a penalty following a handball from Valencia defender Jose Gaya which the referee missed in open play. However, he was only informed of the error after play had already continued for two minutes, leading to widespread confusion when the official eventually pointed to the spot.
Last week saw further controversy when Athletic Bilbao took on Girona, with Athletic being denied a clear penalty for handball even after VAR was consulted, but then awarded a much more dubious one in the last minute, when the referee refused to call upon the video replay.
While VAR is supposed to help referees avoid mistakes and miscarriages of justice, it's also clear that the current system still has room for improvement.
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