Defeat by Barcelona in el clasico could yet prove to be the turning point of Real Madrid’s season

There are defeats and there are defeats,” claimed Xabi Alonso. And then there are defeats that appear not to be defeats at all. Defeats like Real Madrid’s at Camp Nou by Barcelona. Defeats like the one that came in the match billed as the greatest club contest of all time. The defeat that should have buried Madrid but seemed to revive them. The defeat that took away the league leadership but gave them something back in return.

Barcelona versus Real Madrid: unique treble winners against the most expensive side in Spanish football history, with the neo galacticos built at a cost of over £210million. The most glamorous clasico ever was shown live at cinemas all over the country for the first time and with the leadership up for grabs for the first time in 25 years.

In the end, Madrid lost it to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal but you could be forgiven for thinking that they’d won it. Not least because they nearly had.

Nearly is not normally good enough, you might say, but this time it was. For some, at least.

Intense, dramatic, absorbing and unexpected, el clasico lived up to its billing – a game that the newspaper El Pais described as “superlative”; the kind of game where it felt like nothing quite made sense. Up against 11 men, Madrid controlled Barcelona; up against 10 following Sergio Busquets’ sending-off, they lost control. With a man less, Barcelona began to get men free. In the final minute it was a Barca defender who was screeching up the wing looking for goals, even though it was his team who were leading by a solitary goal and were a man down.

Madrid, who had been characterised all season by their ability to deliver a knockout blow, even when on the ropes, suddenly found that their right hook failed them. Barca, who had danced nimbly and exchanged quick jabs but occasionally failed to floor their opponent, suddenly found unexpected resistance and stamina – not to mention a thumping counterpunch.

Cristiano Ronaldo was supposed to be the hero, the man that would win it. Instead, his first-half miss, with the goal gaping, might have lost it.

As for his battle with Leo Messi, well, the Argentinian wasted a wonderful chance, too. Ibrahimovic began on the bench, not fully fit, but came on to score the winner with a wonderful volley from Dani Alves’ cross. Karim Benzema called it the game of his life, but only appeared as a sub and fluffed his best opportunity. “It was the good players who got it wrong,” muttered one columnist.

Ronaldo, Messi, Xavi, Kaka, Alonso, Andres Iniesta…some of the world’s smoothest talents were on display, yet the night’s heroes were defenders. Indeed, the man of the match was a rugged, shaggy-haired centre-back who is more heart than head: Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. Yet that didn’t make it a defensive stalemate.

Triumph in Madrid
The author and poet Rudyard Kipling urged us to meet the twin impostors of triumph and despair in exactly the same way, and what might have been met as despair was heralded as if it was a triumph in Madrid.

When Madrid returned from Barcelona a year ago, having lost 2-0, the cover of AS cheered: “Madrid are back”, while one commentator opted for the headline: “The pride of champions.” had awarded them a “perfect 10”.

The reason for such optimism back then was simple. Madrid had been defensive, aggressive and defeated but, off the back of a crisis, under a new manager and seemingly in terminal decline, they had proved there was life yet. Having lost four of the previous five, Madrid then kept the title alive with an extraordinary run of 16 wins in 17 games – until Barcelona came to the Bernabeu and dispatched them 6-2.

This time, the situation was different. Madrid arrived at Camp Nou as league leaders but the reaction was similar. Madrid had been beaten 1-0 but the headline on the front of Marca declared it a defeat that “tasted like victory”. Its editorial explained: “Rarely has a defeat left such a good taste in the mouth. Madrid managed to make the fearful ‘Pep Team’ look small. Madrid deserved much more and proved that Barcelona clearly are not what they once were. This is a moral triumph that is worth much more than three points.”

Coach Manuel Pellegrini agreed, saying: “We deserved at the very, very least a draw. We were the better side in almost everything.”

It was about time. And that was the point. Madrid went into week 12 on top of the table, having lost just once. They came out of week 12 in second having been beaten again. But the progress, almost everyone agreed, was evident.

Although Madrid had been winning up until then, no one was convinced. Their football was flat and there was little of the excellence promised by the arrival of the galacticos. Pellegrini was in trouble. They were top of the table but had been humiliated 4-0 by Second Division B side Alcorcon in the Spanish Cup and the media said he had been given the ultimatum: improve, or you’re out.

Madrid improved. “Madrid found football,” said the headline on the front of AS. Barcelona made strikingly few chances. “I’ve never seen them create so little,” insisted Pellegrini. It was not because Madrid defended like a lowly adversary as they had the year before, either. Instead, Barca made few chances because the Madrid midfield denied them space, pressuring high, robbing the ball and springing quickly.

The best chances were Real Madrid’s, but Ronaldo wasted his, Puyol made three extraordinary blocks and goalkeeper Victor Valdes was extremely sharp.

Madrid had not convinced before. Now, at last, they did. “This is a different story,” wrote Eduardo Inda. “For the first time all season there was order, tactical clarity and a team that took the game to their rival.”

The trouble is, if Madrid couldn’t convince when they were winning nor could they win when they were convincing. Ibrahimovic came on and opened the scoring. Within two minutes, Madrid were handed a lifeline when Busquets was sent off. But something had changed; they couldn’t take advantage. Madrid made chances, but so too did Barcelona. Messi, Eric Abidal and Gerard Pique could all have scored. It was now Barcelona who carried the game to Madrid just as much as the other way round.

Uncomfortable truths
Madrid had improved, they had also impressed, but there were one or two uncomfortable truths to face too; not least the fact that Barcelona’s do-or-die week had very definitely gone the way of do. They had defeated Internazionale in the Champions League and now Real Madrid; while Madrid, according to their critics, had faced just three decent teams – Milan, Sevilla and Barcelona – and lost to all of them.

Against Barcelona there were positive signs for the rest of the season, but there were familiar failings too. “Madrid were superb in the first half, just as they were in the first half in Milan and against Racing,” insisted one pundit. “Yes,” came the reply. “In the first half.” It would be no exaggeration to say that, 20 games into the season, they have not yet played 90 good minutes. Besides, asked others, what is the point of spending £210m to play as a counter-attacking team? Isn’t that what small teams do? Where’s the bravado, the ambition?

“Madrid were much better,” said former captain Manolo Sanchis. “But it worries me how impotent they were when they had to take the initiative.”

“We leave here satisfied,” insisted Madrid’s director general Jorge Valdano. They also left defeated.