When Real Madrid and Barcelona meet on Saturday for the second in less than a week, the match won't be nearly as important as the one that came before it. Except that's not really true at all.
Real Madrid whipped Barcelona 3-1 on Tuesday night at the Camp Nou in the semifinals of the Spanish Copa del Rey. In the most immediate sense, the result held much more importance for both teams than Saturday's rematch at the Bernabeu ever could.
Saturday's encounter (10 a.m. ET, beIN Sport) is a La Liga match. With a 16-point lead over Real Madrid in the league table (and a 12-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid), Barcelona have been title shoo-ins for months now.
That doesn't mean the match won't be important. It just means this one is all about context.
The context is this: Tuesday's result marked the second high-profile defeat for Barcelona in as many games. Both losses—the first came last week at AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League—chipped away at Barca's veneer of invulnerability.
With Lionel Messi suddenly struggling to score and manager Tito Vilanova away from the team, Barcelona look not just vulnerable, but also adrift. They look disoriented. Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo have taken the lead in the rivalry, even while they trail in the table by 16 points, and the next showdown is fast approaching.
That makes Saturday—meaningless league fixture that it might be—an automatically absorbing encounter. Titles and trophies won't be on the line, but one can't help but think that supremacy in Europe's best footballing rivalry will be.
In fairness, Barcelona remain overwhelming favorites to win the Spanish title. Even with momentum, Real couldn't realistically hope to make up a 16-point deficit in the final two months of the season. Previously, though, Messi and company had been not just domestic leaders but also the favorites to win the UEFA Champions League as well.
Compared to La Liga and the Champions League, the Copa del Rey probably ranked lowest in priority. However, even as Xavi made just that argument, The Guardian's Sid Lowe smacked it down.
"Barcelona have lost far more than the least important title. They have lost identity and supremacy, fitness and confidence," Lowe wrote after Tuesday's match. "They are a team that have been beaten before; what makes this different is that this time they have been well beaten, so deservedly defeated."
Vilanova, who took over as manager from Pep Guardiola at the beginning of the season, has been away from the team since the turn of the year. While he receives treatment for a salivary-gland tumor, assistant Jordi Roura has been in direct contact. However, as the losses to Milan and Madrid would suggest, Vilanova's presence on the touchline has been missed.
So, too, has the normal contribution of Messi lately. Messi, La Liga's top scorer with 38 goals this season, did not score in either contest. After the Clasico, he fielded inevitable questions about fatigue.
"I am used to playing a lot of games now, and I prefer it this way," he said (via Daily Telegraph). "I feel better if I don't rest."
Maybe so, but both Milan and Madrid exposed flaws in both Barcelona and Messi. In his post-match analysis, Zonal Marking's Michael Cox wrote:
Real’s approach was a little less aggressive here, and they followed Milan’s lead of pressing in midfield rather than sitting deep and inviting continual pressure – at least at the start of the game.
The danger with this approach, however, is that a reasonably high defensive line was necessary. …In this match, there was surprisingly little threat in behind the defence from Barcelona, primarily because of the Andres Iniesta-Cesc Fabregas problem on the left, which continues to frustrate.
B/R's Sam Tighe expounded on the midfield battle, showing how it led to Real Madrid's opening goal and influenced the outcome of the match.
(Real Madrid) soaked up pressure by stacking two holding midfielders in front of the defensive line and, after winning the ball back on the edge of their own area, would immediately fire a long ball in behind one of Barca's marauding full-backs.
The deadlock was broken in this fashion—Gonzalo Higuain set Ronaldo off down the right touchline and the former Manchester United winger tricked Gerard Pique into lunging in.
The referee awarded a penalty and Ronaldo made no mistake.
Which team will win Saturday?
Ronaldo, for what it's worth, recorded five shots on target—two more than Barcelona managed as a team (stats via WhoScored.com). The Portuguese superstar didn't just score two goals to Messi's none; he was the better player all around on the night.
Likewise, Real Madrid didn't just steal a result with effective defending and efficient counter-attacking. Jose Mourinho's men were the better team on the night, and despite their 16-point deficit in the league, they also look like the better team moving forward.
For now, at least. The next Clasico could change all of that, of course, and that's why we'll all be watching.