How decisions impacted Barca draw at Valencia and their chances at the title
The Mestalla on Sunday night, La Liga leaders against their closest pursuers: Barcelona visiting Valencia.
It was intense, it was cacophonous, it provided entertainment of all shapes and sizes. But it didn't provide Barca with the knockout blow that a victory would surely have signified for Los Che, Real Madrid and Atletico in the pursuing pack.
In the aftermath of the high-class contest, we were left with the evidence of how decision-making can add drama, pathos, anger, self-sacrifice and, in some cases, satisfaction. Here are five examples from that wonderful, no-holds-barred, top-of-the-table clash.
1. Refereeing decisions
There were three such monumental errors in this match that whether Barca hang on and win the title or the chasing pack haul them back, it can be said that the officiating at the Mestalla will have played a significant part.
The obvious one is the Lionel Messi goal that wasn't.
Some sympathy, please, for Ignacio Iglesias Villanueva. His name is mud in Catalunya, naturally, because the referee is blamed for every single thing that obstructs a team from winning. From bad weather to bad breath to bad behaviour ... "That damn referee!"
But when Valencia's Neto fumbles a first-time Messi shot off his left foot, Iglesias Villanueva is precisely where he should be: just behind the Barcelona No. 10 and, thus, unsighted as to Neto's skulduggery when the Brazilian scoops the ball back out of the net.
It's the far-side assistant referee (and this was a Gary Larson moment), whose name is Enrique Ramos Ferreiros, making the calamitous error.
OK, he can't get precisely horizontal with the goal line, given how quickly Messi hits his shot. But the angle from which Ramos Ferreiros views the incident is very nearly perfect. He can see Neto reaching back, he can see the scooping action. It's inconceivable that he gets the decision wrong.
The choice to not award the goal had prompt ramifications. Not long into the second half, Samuel Umtiti committed a clear penalty on Goncalo Guedes. Again the referee was well-positioned, and again he ignored what should have been awarded.
Frankly, you'd guess that Villanueva had seen Messi's disallowed goal at half-time and thought "Oops!" or words to that effect. In the moment of the would-be penalty, I think he reckoned: "Better not provoke any Camp Nou critics with more 'ammunition.' I'm not giving the penalty!"
It also appeared that the referee took matters into his own hands when Rodrigo celebrated his goal by leaving the pitch and donning the orange wig he purchased prematch and told a ball boy to supply him with if he scored.
You might well know that the gesture was to honour the most successful Valencia president, Jaume Orti, who died at age 70 last week. Orti liked to make that gesture when Los Che, under his rule, won the title.
What Rodrigo did, donning head gear, is enshrined in FIFA laws as a bookable offence. Not optional for the referee -- automatic.
Images show Iglesias Villanueva walking toward the Brazilian with his yellow card out, but when Rodrigo was booked for a foul on Paulinho, he wasn't sent off. Eventually he was substituted.
Had the striker been booked for his original offence of celebrating with the wig, then a few minutes later, he would have been red-carded for that second offence on Paulinho. Potentially, it's a game-changer.
Guesswork again, but it looked distinctly as though Iglesias Villanueva thought: "Oh boy, this is a volcanic stadium, and the orange wig is to commemorate a beloved president whose success at the Mestalla was legendary! I'll avoid the condemnation of a hugely fired up crowd by cancelling Rodrigo's booking."
In not one of those instances did the refereeing officials make the right call. And while the "phantom goal" is what caught all the headlines, the other two decisions had the potential to significantly alter the course of the game. That isn't good enough.
2. Injury decisions
Although his fellow players knew, it wasn't widely understood that Goncalo Guedes was suffering from a stress fracture in one of his toes or that prematch, he took a pain-killing injection in order to play. That news broke when, on Monday morning, it became clear that the superb young Portuguese winger requires immediate surgery to avoid greater damage. He'll be out until early January.
This proved to be a good decision.
Although he was left as little more than an enthusiastic spectator, thanks to his teammates failing to give him the ball often enough in the first half, Guedes firmly altered the second act. As soon as Valencia put the ex-Benfica lightning bolt up against former Benfica teammate Nelson Semedo, it was an unequal battle.
Either Semedo was posted missing -- at which point Marc-Andre ter Stegen was forced into a one-vee-one save at Guedes' feet -- or Guedes found space, drew Semedo but slid a pass outside him to the overlapping Jose Luis Gaya, who crossed for Rodrigo's goal.
Injured or not, Guedes turned the game. His decision contrasts with two others in similar circumstances.
Luis Suarez has been suffering from a meniscus injury since summer. Because he was desperate to help Uruguay qualify for the World Cup, he rejected the keyhole surgery that could repair it but would cost him at least four weeks. Simone Zaza has exactly the same plight.
Each man must train less than usual to protect the meniscus if he is to continue to avoid surgery. That means that each of the two is short of sharpness, plays with the distraction of pain and looks significantly less effective than normal.
In the case of Suarez, it's beginning to look like a chronically bad decision. His form and his sharpness are in the bin.
Zaza, meanwhile, put in titanic work to prevent Barcelona from having easy possession. However, by midway through the second half, he was noticeably limping between sprints. He'll be lucky to avoid surgery before the transfer window opens.
Three brave decisions to ignore pain, to sacrifice on behalf of the team, but only one that truly paid dividends. The other two might yet have a high cost.
3. Substitution decisions
What was Ernesto Valverde thinking of when he replaced Ivan Rakitic with Gerard Deulofeu? Well, firstly, he wasn't thinking that Deulofeu would go on to give a performance that was glaringly undisciplined.
Rakitic erred, significantly, by drifting inside and not covering the overlapping run made by Gaya to create Valencia's goal. A serious mistake, but one punishable by substitution seven minutes later? I'm not at all convinced.
When Deulofeu came on, he wandered all over the pitch, didn't stick to marking or tracking Gaya, gave the ball away and failed to convert good possession into goal-scoring opportunities. In short, he played as if the sharp, well-oriented player bearing the same name as he from the early part of the season was a talented, football-savvy twin brother.
4. Life decisions
Jordi Alba, whose football education blossomed at Valencia, once explained to me how his entire football ideology was formed by watching Hristo Stoichkov. The diminutive Catalan watched the ultra-talented left-footed Bulgarian play for Barca's Dream Team and dreamed of emulating him.
For a long time, Alba was a winger-cum-inside forward. One day, Unai Emery decided to make him Valencia's left-back, and Alba's life changed.
Champions League winner, European champion, Spanish champion: He has won the lot. What he has never lost is the ability he shares with Stoichkov to do wonderful things with that left foot. Or the ability that he shares with Stoichkov to say, "Damn the consequences."
Never forgiven by the Mestalla crowd for leaving in 2012, despite, as he says, "signing for free and then leaving Valencia a significant transfer sum," Alba doesn't much care.
When he bent to pick up the ball and celebrate into the camera after scoring a brilliant equaliser, some idiot threw an object at Alba. But all the Catalan wanted to do was celebrate the fact that he and his partner will be parents for the first time.
Was he bothered about celebrating the goal in front of his former fans, having damaged his former club, as so many players seem to feel? Not a bit of it. Decision-making of which Stoichkov would have been proud.
5. Club decisions
Finally, spare a thought for poor, old Paco Alcacer, a nice kid in the midst of a career high when he moved from Valencia to Barcelona in 2016.
Yet stuck, miserably, on the bench at the Mestalla on Sunday night. For 99 percent of his time with Barca, he has either had to feed off scraps or been ignored by the coach.
His place as Spain's first-choice striker is a distant memory, as distant as his chances of going to next summer's World Cup. Since leaving Valencia, Los Che have admittedly been chaotic. But this season, they are dynamite.
Latterly, Alcacer has been playing for Barca: two consecutive starts against Sevilla and Leganes, and his response has been to provide goals and assists. Yet when it came right down to it, Valverde not only dropped him for the Mestalla test, but he also used three substitutes without calling on Alcacer.
Things clearly aren't going to work out for the striker, and sooner or later, he'll have to move.
With Valencia desperately in need of someone to either relieve the burden on Zaza or replace him if he's forced to undergo surgery, would it be daft to think of Marcelino repatriating a guy who probably wishes he'd never left Valencia in the first place?
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.