After 23 seconds of latest instalment of El Clásico, it seemed as if José Mourinho’s Real Madrid would finally assert their dominance over Barcelona and set the stage for a first La Liga title since 2008. And yet after 90 minutes, a familiar sense of dejection fell over the Bernabéu as Los Blancos succumbed to a 3-1 defeat.
In the time he has been in charge at Real, Mourinho has overseen eight Clásicos, losing four and winning just one (last season’s Copa del Rey final). His clearly defined remit upon taking the job was to overhaul Pep Guardiola’s Barça and return Real to the top of Spanish and world football. In that respect he has, so far, failed.
True, the events of Saturday may not have amounted to the humiliation suffered in the Portuguese’s first Clásico – a 5-0 humbling at the Nou Camp last November. But one fears that the implications of this defeat could be much greater.
Last year, Barcelona were almost expected to wipe the floor with Madrid, even though Mourinho’s men were eight games unbeaten at the time. 5-0 was a score line indicative of the mood surrounding Barça – they were clear favourites to win La Liga and the Champions League and were regularly being described as the greatest side of all time.
This time round it was different. In their meetings in between Real had clawed back some credibility with a win at the Mestalla and a couple of respectable draws, though both sides did horrendous damage to their reputations with the deplorable display of deceit and debauchery in the Champions League Semi-Final. Madrid went into Saturday’s game with 15 consecutive wins under their belt – and no longer were they playing a dull, pragmatic brand of football, rather a lively, attacking style spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Barcelona, by contrast, haven’t quite looked themselves, particularly away from home. Even Xavi Hernández admitted this week that this was “the first Clásico to arrive in three or four years in which Madrid are in better shape”.
So when it came to kick-off, the world waited expectantly for Barcelona’s monopoly to be broken officially. Benzema’s early strike courtesy of some suicidal defending was surely the beginning of the end for the champions. But, no. Alexis Sánchez, Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas restored normality and, once again, Mourinho was left asking why.
He has tried everything by now. First, an attempt to beat Barça at their own game – this ended in spectacular failure. Then, a plan that had served him well at Chelsea and Inter Milan, namely that of defending in numbers and kicking Barcelona off the park – this produced relative success, but widespread condemnation and a perception that the great Real should be above such tactics led him to abandon this approach. Saturday was supposed to mark the final shift – Madrid playing their own game and possessing sufficient quality to win.
But once Sánchez had struck the equaliser, the life and belief gradually drained away from the home players and fans alike. No-one summed this up better than Ronaldo, who was, not for the first time in a Clásico, little more than a spectator. His two great chances to score passed him by, and seconds after he misplaced a header from six yards out Fabregas added Barça’s third at the other end. So, once again, the Portuguese superstar failed to perform on the biggest stage – another all too familiar feeling.
The question for Mourinho now is whether he can ever overcome his great Catalonian rivals; the club at which he was once a trusted assistant to Sir Bobby Robson. This Real side is the best that has graced the Spanish capital in some time, and yet they were unable to defeat a Barça side that didn’t play at their outstanding best and haven’t done all season.
What won the game for Barcelona was not a moment of individual brilliance, nor a mesmerising cascade of passes – it was their mindset. Whereas Madrid lost their discipline and rhythm, the away side kept their cool and adapted to the situation beautifully. Dani Alves moved forward with ease and Carles Puyol defended magnificently when moved to right-back. Madrid were disjointed and out of ideas.
Barcelona hold no fear in these matches – they know how to win them. For 18 months, Mourinho has chopped and changed his tactics at will, but still the Special One comes up short. And the longer Madrid go without overcoming their great enemy, the harder it will become.
So the question remains: if José cannot beat Barcelona now, then when?