Barcelona and Real Madrid, in alternate universes

Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t believe his ears. It was true, they had lost against the arch-rivals. Not just that, they had been completely obliterated, at home. But, still, it took him a while to understand what was going on. He looked at the Bernabeu stands. “Are those boos directed at me?” His eyes seemed to ask. And then it dawned on him. He wasn’t untouchable anymore.

Real Madrid suffered one of their worst defeats in history. They lost to a Barcelona side that was better from start to finish. To the point that, at times, it even seemed that it was a match between professionals and amateurs, and not a clash between the two most expensive teams in world football.

If the reasons for the Blaugrana victory had to be defined in one sentence, it would be: “the triumph of a system over improvisation”. Since Pep Guardiola was appointed as Barça coach seven years ago, the team has never reneged from their philosophy. Yes, there have been some changes. Now the team is less technical and more direct. They are faster but less precise. But the idea is still the same, and everybody knows it. The players have learned it so well that their style of play has become automatic, almost second-nature.

It has reached a point where even the best player in the world is not necessarily indispensable. Lionel Messi, recently recovered from an injury, entered the pitch 35 minutes, when the game was already decided, and had no real impact in the game. The keys lied elsewhere.

During the two months that the Argentine star was out, Neymar and Suarez had scored 10 goals each. Fans wondered if they were ready for the big jump and step into the limelight in a Clasico. The star of the show, however, turned out to be someone else, a player who has always been there and who specializes in delivering when the team needs him the most.

Last night, at the Santiago Bernabeu, the conductor of the orchestra was Andres Iniesta. In a season in which the newspapers focus on the strikers and their individual performances, Barcelona’s number 8, the ultimate team player, made clear that the strength of the Blaugranas remains in the collective, and the ability to dominate the game from midfield.

The perfect sample was the first goal. The move started in Barça’s own box, ith a seemingly innocuous Rakitic pass to Jordi Alba, and finished 24 passes later with a beautiful assist by Sergi Roberto that Luis Suarez cooly finished. Eight Barca players touched the ball in the meantime with Real Madrid as simple spectators. Total football.

On the other side, there was just chaos. Real Madrid came to the game surrounded in doubt. In their last two matches they had lost against Sevilla and defeated Paris Saint Germain with a big deal of luck. The main criticism had gone to new coach Rafael Benitez, considered too defensive, and big star, Cristiano Ronaldo, who had scored only 3 goals in 7 matches.

Would Ronaldo be able to wake up in the Clásico? Could Benitez turn the team’s fortunes around? The response to these questions was even worse than the most pessimistic fan would have expected.

Real Madrid seemed to go out there without a game plan and spent the whole 90 minutes unsuccessfully chasing their rivals. CR7 hardly touched the ball. He had a marvelous chance, one on one with Claudio Bravo, but crashed his shot onto the goalkeeper's hands. After the final whistle, the fans of Santiago Bernabeu did the unthinkable: booed the Portuguese idol.

It is clear that Ronaldo is no longer the player he was, he has lost the explosion of the past and is no longer to leave defenders behind with speed. He remains an extraordinary player, but he’s no longer able to carry a team on his shoulders. The problem is that Real Madrid do not seem to have a Plan B.

When Messi doesn’t appear at Barcelona, uis Enrique can always count on Iniesta, Neymar or Luis Suarez to get him out of trouble. Last night, without Cristiano Ronaldo, the merengues were completely lost. Gareth Bale tried, but despite his great physical tools, he’s not talented enough. James Rodriguez has the talent, but not the character. Luka Modric and Tony Kroos need decisive players at their side to take advantage of their vision and technique. They can’t do it on their own.

The worst thing is that there seems to be no way out. Thanks to the FIFA date, Rafa Benitez had 10 days to prepare for El Clásico, and was still unable to find a way to stop a Barcelona that did nothing out of the norm. They just played with their usual style and that was enough.

After the final whistle, the Spanish newspaper Marca launched a poll asking if Real Madrid had to change coaches. 71% of respondents said yes. The future looks bleak. What will the merengues do if Cristiano Ronaldo goes to Manchester United at the end of the season? As much as he has lost, the Portuguese striker is still the best player on the team, and in the current squad there is nobody who can become his heir. The team will then have to look for answers in the transfer market ... again.

But that’s the future. The present is not much better. With 26 games to go, the title seems to be out of their reach. Barcelona will now have to find a way to re-engage Messi to a team that has worked like clockwork without him, but will do so with the confidence that, beyond the names, when there is talent and a system, the results will never be far away.

In Madrid, meanwhile, there seems to be neither the talent nor a system. And in those cases, sometimes it is best to start with stronger foundations, even if it means sacrificing what you have.