Messi, Bale, Ancelotti, Torres and a subpar referee: the key men in La Liga

Whether or not we are all honest enough to admit it, an integral part of football's global appeal is that dispute, polemic, ill-feeling and contentious issues more than fill the aching chasm (usually about 48 hours these days) between significant football matches.

Most of us like to take sides, too. Good guys, bad guys. Neutrals who support other clubs will happily explain at length why they prefer Real Madrid's playing style and back-story, or why they adore Barcelona's slightly more cerebral, "little guys take on the world" brand of soccer.

You know precisely what I'm talking about. Who smuggled David Luiz into the 2014 FIFPro World XI? Where was the immense Diego Godin? How could Stephanie Roche's magical goal be overlooked? It goes on and on.

But the real beauty, I think, is that whenever football needs to assert its core magic, whenever the simple task of moving the ball between 11 players and past 11 opponents to stick it between the posts is required to remind us what the heck it is we all get to apoplectic with excitement about on non-match days -- that's precisely what football does.

So it was last weekend. I'm arguing that Barcelona's 3-1 win over Atletico on Sunday is the finest game of football the Blaugrana have laid on since Pep Guardiola's final season. Not just their own performance, but the second-half intended comeback from a proud, hostile champion too. It was spine-tinglingly good.

Real Madrid 3-0 Espanyol wasn't quite that; a nice, high-quality flame-grilled burger compared to Barca's filet mignon. However, the goals scored by James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale were, literally, stunningly good. The first was a triptych move of immensely difficult skills, all performed as if they were no more difficult than breathing in and out. The second? A sublime, powerful and completely unsaveable free kick.

Last weekend's events will now give way to some real drama this week. Can David Moyes' Real Sociedad add Villarreal's scalp to those of Real Madrid, Atletico and Barcelona, and qualify for the Copa del Rey quarterfinal? Who will emerge from the Madrid derby, our fifth of this cornucopia of a season ... and do Real Madrid even really want to be in the competition any more? And were Valencia going to be able to protect their slender lead over Espanyol in Barcelona?

So for all these reasons I give you five personalities -- five of the people who have already been, and will continue to be, front and centre of our attention in this fabulous footballing week.

Lionel Messi

With all the respect in the world, Leo, it is time to take stock.

That performance on Sunday night against Atletico was blisteringly good. A mixture of molten gold and molten lava. So where has that form, that attitude, that intensity, that discipline, that stamina, that pace been for the past few months?

Yes, the goals have continued to flow. And yes, your repertoire of skills has been dipped into regularly enough for us to still feel a tingle of thrill every time you go near the ball. But this was a performance to take all our minds back to the period between 2009 and 2012.

You don't like playing on the wing. You never have. The first time I ever saw you play, in Barcelona's B team, I wondered what all the fuss was about because your disinterest in the match was patent. Not until your captain that day told me that you were probably a little sulky because you hated playing wide, instead of in the No. 10 position, and the whole team knew that after only a few months you were already too good for the "B" side and were ready to graduate to the first XI.

Over the years since, you've made very plain your preference for either playing in the centre or floating about the pitch at will. Yet on Sunday you showed tactical discipline and patience; you helped give the rest of the team shape and space by, predominantly, playing wide or coming in off the right. It's a development that is aiding Luis Suarez in his process of becoming immensely productive up front for Barcelona.

Moreover, your work rate, your speed, your pressing, your attitude and, more important than anything else, your commitment to the team ethic all shone. Where has that been? Is it something you can now begin to repeat much more regularly? Did it genuinely clear the air so much to have a row in training with Luis Enrique and then call a "sickie" from work the following Monday? Or was the cathartic thing finding out that a Messi vs. manager tussle is, as you hoped, a complete no-contest?

Then there's Zurich and the Ballon d'Or ceremony on Monday. Personal prizes are not the be-all and end-all for you. We know. But Cristiano Ronaldo told you, face to face, back in 2009 when you first pipped him to the prize that "I'm coming for you and I'm going to win this back."

Since then he's worked with metronomic ambition and diligence to elevate both his game and his reputation above yours. Meanwhile you have remained at a celestial level above all for your heavenly talent.

But, compared to Ronaldo, how would you rate your goal-setting (as opposed to scoring), your attention to detail, your ambition and your remorselessness? Yeah, I thought so. Caught you coasting a little, didn't we?

On Sunday's evidence, you know it too. Let's have the headlights on full glare again please. Show us the way.

Gareth Bale

Gareth, Gareth, Gareth. You made a mistake, my friend. Not a catastrophic one, not a sinful one. But a tactical blunder. And it needs repairing. To miss one chance to set up a teammate's goal may be regarded as a misfortune. To miss two in a week looks like carelessness.

I suspect you knew precisely how fast Ronaldo ran to get past Diego Colotto and be in position, to your left, on Saturday to score a tap-in goal. I suspect you knew, too, how important he felt it was to score a goal, grab part of the headlines and float to the Ballon d'Or podium having maintained that scoring record of 17 consecutive matches at the Bernabeu.

To keep the chance for yourself, particularly after the manager pretty generously spoke out in defence of your identical poor choice in the defeat to Valencia, was to let Ancelotti down. The Italian's tactical nous, his "light hand on the tiller" training regimen, his immense football knowledge -- all these things have been central to Madrid's inexorable rise to the zenith of European football over the past two years.

But pound for pound, one of his most vital achievements has been to foster unity. Call me corny, Gareth old boy, but we both know that there has been an "all for one, one for all" spirit at your club. Since you arrived. As the new boy. With the massive price tag. Half fit. Unable to communicate properly in Spanish.

What an environment that was for you to work in. There was no jealousy from Ronaldo, a man whose territorial instincts are tiger-fierce. You had an innate connection with Karim Benzema and Luka Modric.

But here's the really weird thing, fella. Last season you were so street-smart. Winning over Ronaldo in training, setting him up for goal after goal. Convincing him that you are here to complement, not to compete. Now you've made Madrid's greatest modern player believe you feel that GB11 is greater than CR7.

If you didn't already know via Ronaldo's saturnine scowls or that torrent of foul abuse he shouted on Saturday when you wouldn't pass and you missed the target, the manager's comment about having to sort out ego when it raises its head, then the fact that different sections of fans were divided between jeering you and singing your name should tell you that it's you who is out of step. Not everyone else.

You know that old saying about if it ain't broke, don't fix it? Take that and reverse it. You're on thin ice.

Alberto Undiano Mallenco

In the time-honoured phrase of every footballer -- "Ref! REF!" -- you made a complete pig's breakfast out of that game, Senor.

Maybe you didn't know that Jose Gimenez's studs had ripped Neymar's ankle open until the blood clotted his sock. But your position when the incident took place and the clarity of the fact that the Uruguayan went over the ball in his challenge meant that it was impossible for any competent referee to fail to call it a foul. Once established that it was a foul, there's a really tight debate about whether it's a mere booking or red card. Red in my view.

Again, Messi's use of the arm to control the ball and sprint away for the 2-0 goal was right in your sight line. What happened? Then, after half-time, when one is tempted to suppose that texts from friends, family and colleagues probably let you know the severity of the two mistakes, it's equally tempting to suppose that your calamitous penalty award was some sort of misplaced attempt to "even things up." Was it? No way on god's green earth was that anything other than a scandalous piece of cheating by Jesus Gamez.

Simply, you lost control. If Messi had been booked for handball, the game stays at 1-0 and he's then sent off in the 80th minute for his high boot. No third goal for the home team.

Raul Garcia pushing Neymar to the ground, Diego Godín's aggression towards Dani Alves; the match was allowed to become a grudge-fest. Partly your responsibility, partly your fault. Footballers who perform so ineptly are sold, while managers who fail like that are sacked.

There's a fighting chance that Barcelona and Atleti will now meet twice over the next two weeks in the Copa del Rey quarterfinal. Emphasis on fighting. If there's a running feud of grudge-settling during those games, you'll have played your part in that. Don't forget that Cesar Muniz was a top-level referee last season; now he's in Gijon minding his restaurant. His error-strewn last 12 months meant he was demoted from the Primera and, thus, chose to retire early. Be warned, Senor Mallenco.

Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo, you really need a Harry Houdini week. To stage what's called a "remontada" (a fightback victory) against Atletico would be surgingly good for fan morale and would end a run of only one win in six Madrid derbies.

But Madrid don't need to be in the Copa. They'll detect sudden signs of life at the Camp Nou, but retaining the Champions League is the absolute objective, and more than one of your key players is in danger of both physical and mental burnout before the denouement of the season.

Last week was a little humiliating, being pretty soundly beaten by Atleti, meaning that apart from the Champions League final you have to go all the way back to April 2013 to find a win for Los Blancos in this rivalry.

From Cristiano Ronaldo through Iker Casillas, president Florentino Perez, the fans, the Madrid media and the coaching setup itself, the prospect of losing to Diego Simeone's mob for the fourth time this season is literally unthinkable. Horrifying. But I'd say, Carlo, that if the score just happened to be 1-0 or 2-1 Real Madrid, even a firm draw, then Madrid might not need to bust a gut for the winning goals. It's a home win, bragging rights for the fans. But not qualification, no need to play Barcelona twice in the next week. Heads focussed instead on winning the two biggest prizes, free midweeks, some precious rest. Think about it, ragazzo.

Fernando Torres

Well, Nino: welcome back. Loudly booed onto the pitch at the Camp Nou on Sunday, there were not much more than scraps for you there. Certainly no rich pickings.

But the story of the match tells you the story of what you've been signed for. Time and time again, people (mostly in the media) want to speculate, usually negatively, about how many goals you'll score. As a striker, clearly that's part of your remit. But if you can make your homecoming close to what Diego Costa provided last season, you'll go a long way to providing Simeone with what he requires.

Mario Mandzukic scored at Barcelona and his goal tally of seven league goals in 15 games is reasonable so far. But what he cannot do is make those long counterattack runs that threaten defences, whether he has the ball or not, and haul Atletico right up the pitch. Not only in terms of counterattacking, but allowing Los Rojiblancos to set up camp in the opponents' half.

Mandzukic wants the ball delivered to him in dangerous areas, rather than to break from the halfway line and sprint into a one-on-one contest with the keeper. Of course, that was the very action in the 2012 Champions League semifinal at the Camp Nou that earned you all those boos, thanks to your determining goal for Chelsea that night.

Irrespective of both Simeone's error in playing Jesus Gamez out of position at left-back, or the fact that Atleti were pretty ferocious in the second half, they keenly needed the type of forward who can haul their match position many metres up the pitch and allow them to set up camp and asphyxiate teams they way they did while winning the title last season. It's a hard shift, Nino -- but a glorious one if you get it right.