The VAR Review: Bayern’s offside ‘goal’ vs. Real Madrid

Video Assistant Referee causes controversy every week across Europe, and it even crops up in the Champions League.

On Wednesday night, in the second leg of the semifinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga club were desperately searching for an equaliser.

The score was 2-1 to Real Madrid, giving them a 3-2 aggregate lead, in the 13th minute of added time (only nine had been signalled.) Bayern had to score but they were thwarted by the offside flag and the referee blew his whistle. Bayern lost 2-1 and were eliminated.

Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel was raging, calling it a “a disastrous decision from the linesman and the referee.”

So what happened, who was to blame, and how does this all work with VAR?

How VAR decisions have affected every Prem club in 2023-24

What happened?

The ball was played into the Real Madrid area, with Noussair Mazraoui challenging Ferland Mendy. The Los Blancos defender headed the ball away, and as the ball dropped into open space in the area the assistant, Tomasz Listkiewicz, raised his flag. Referee Szymon Marciniak immediately blew the whistle.

Thomas Müller nodded the ball to Matthijs de Ligt, and he fired into net past Andriy Lunin — though the goalkeeper made no attempt to make a save because of the whistle so you cannot say Bayern were denied a goal. The Real Madrid defenders may have been affected too.

Play stopped at the whistle so there was nothing the VAR could do, so this is all about how and when the play should end from a delayed flag.

Was Mazraoui onside?

As no goal was scored, there’s no VAR offside situation to judged. So we won’t get the semiautomated offside visualisation for this and we’ve never know for certain.

But it looks exceptionally close and Mazraoui may well have been marginally onside to the boot of Antonio Rüdiger.

Mazraoui’s act of challenging Mendy for the aerial ball is an offside offence even though he didn’t touch it.

Why did the assistant raise his flag?

Assistants are told to keep the flag down on close offsides, and only raise it when a goal is scored or at the end of the attacking move.

Indeed, Real Madrid’s winning goal in the 91st minute came through this route. Joselu scored from a pass by Rüdiger and as soon as the ball crossed the line the flag went up; the goal was awarded through a VAR review as the striker was behind the ball. That Bayern lost to a delayed flag when they were denied by a premature flag only adds to their frustration.

The VAR Handbook states that the assistant “should delay the flag if an attacking player has a ‘free run’ or is in a very good scoring position moving directly to, or within, the penalty area.”

For Listkiewicz, Bayern never gained possession from the original pass. It’s headed away by Mendy and the offside Mazraoui failed to continue the attack. Had Mazraoui collected the pass, or headed it to a teammate himself, the assistant may not have been so ready to raise the flag.

So the assistant has done nothing wrong here?

Technically no, but in a game of such magnitude and at such a crucial stage it would have made much more sense for Listkiewicz just to hold the flag for a little longer to see what developed.

We see so many delayed flag situations which seem to be completely needless — for instance, when a player is running to the corner or is offside by a large margin.

This is a Champions League semifinal, one of the biggest games of the season. You’ve got VAR, so just wait a few more seconds.

However, Listkiewicz’s flag doesn’t control the game.

Does the referee share any of the blame?

Absolutely, in fact he is in charge of when the game is halted so, ultimately, the buck stops with Marciniak. We will see a number examples across a season of an assistant raising the flag too early, and the referee takes the decision to hold the whistle just in case anything develops.

So regardless of the flag, Marciniak should not have stopped the play when the ball first fell to Müller. It should have been clear to him there was still an attacking situation.

The VAR Handbook says: “If the assistant flags for a tight/unclear offside and a player is about to score a goal, the referee should delay the whistle until the goal results so that if the AR has made a ‘clear and obvious error’ the goal can be allowed.”

This is on Marciniak.

It’s not been a stellar season for Marciniak, who refereed the 2022 World Cup final and the 2023 Champions League final. Listkiewicz was also the assistant for both showpiece games.

Marciniak was the referee who wrongly awarded a VAR-advised stoppage-time penalty to Paris Saint-Germain against Newcastle United in December, which was converted and effectively resulted in the Magpies being knocked out of Europe.

But surely the attacking phase wasn’t over?

The delayed flag and the attacking phase (which the VAR can review) are two different considerations.

If the assistant has identified an offside, the flag should go up at the quickest point when there’s no clear attacking momentum.

However, if the assistant doesn’t spot an offside the VAR can go back through the whole phase.

A defender heading the ball away and it dropping to an opposition player doesn’t count as a reset of the reviewable VAR phase. In a Premier League game between Aston Villa and Sheffield United this season, Leon Bailey had a goal disallowed through VAR as goalkeeper Wes Foderingham was being held by Jacob Ramsey. That came after a five opposition players had touched the ball — none of which reset the reviewable VAR phase.