Saturday afternoon saw Real Madrid host Barcelona in La Liga at the Santiago Bernabeu for what was already the sixth Clasico of the season and the 17th time that these archenemies have met in the past two years, with the Catalans ahead by six wins to Madrid’s four in that period.
And, with the eagerly awaited contest kicking off at 15:00 GMT in bright sunshine in the Spanish capital for the first time in living memory, it promised to be a fascinating showdown.
Here are the six things that we learned from Madrid’s subsequent 2-1 victory.
Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos are not only now both firmly established as Madrid’s best two centre-backs at the club, but they are also fast becoming the most solid central-defensive partnership in Planet Football after yet another eye-catching display on Saturday afternoon against Barcelona.
France international Varane may not be 20 until April, but he already looks like a seasoned international defender, while Captain Fantastic Ramos was on hand to head home Real’s 82-minute winner for the Spain defender’s fourth goal of the season.
Despite missing training last week with the flu, the "Atomic Flea" was still on hand to draw Barca level in the first half with his 50th goal in what has been yet another astonishing campaign.
However, that was not the only notable statistic of the afternoon. The little Argentinian attacker also found the back of the net for the 16th consecutive Liga contest, during which time he has scored 26 goals for the Catalans.
And to cap it all off, the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner equaled Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano’s Clasico scoring record by scoring in this fixture for the 18th time in just 25 matches. It was also the ninth occasion that he had hit the target at the Bernabeu.
Class, pure class—and despite yet again turning in a below-par display for his team, it was still Messi who found Barcelona's equaliser with another record-breaking strike in what was generally a dispiriting performance by the visitors.
Mourinho’s Madrid are now unbeaten in their last 36 fixtures in the Spanish capital.
Even more impressively, the "Special One" has bowed out in his final-ever Clasico (unless of course these two teams somehow contrive to meet in the latter stages of the Champions League) with Real producing yet another tactical master class to overcome their La Liga rivals at the Bernabeu for the first time since recording a 4-1 win almost five years ago.
This was also the first home league Clasico victory for either team since November 2010.
Meanwhile, if this is the Portuguese’s last season at the Bernabeu as expected, then he has delivered on his promise when club president Florentino Perez brought him to the club three years ago.
He beat Barcelona.
In this campaign, the two teams have played each other six times. Mourinho’s men have prevailing three times, while the Catalans have only won once.
Which makes Madrid’s lethargy in La Liga all the more surprising and infuriating. However, Mou still won the Super Copa against Barca and knocked them out of the semifinals of the Copa del Rey as well.
Following up Tuesday night’s Copa Clasico win with a Liga Clasico victory just four days later must have felt sweet.
While Madrid made seven changes to their starting lineup following Tuesday night’s 3-1 win at Camp Nou, acting Barcelona head coach Jordi Roura opted for just three alterations from that heavy defeat, and one wonders whether that was the right call in view of what the Catalans’ priority should now be this season.
The priority should be getting through their Champions League last-16 tie with AC Milan, which Barca currently trail 2-0 from the first leg. Surely, this dead rubber of a fixture was the ideal opportunity for the visitors to test out the extent of their first-team squad with a view to key performers gaining rest ahead of the return showdown with the Rossoneri?
Madrid boss Mourinho was clearly thinking along the same lines in relation to his starting lineup. With the destination of this season’s Liga title having already been decided, the Champions League is his club’s No. 1 priority, which is way he didn't start Cristiano Ronaldo—for only the second time this campaign—Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain.
Despite all those changes, the home side still prevailed. In the first half, with Ronaldo’s absence, they proved their critics wrong by demonstrating they are far from a one-man team.
Barcelona, who still lead Madrid by 13 points at the top of the table, will no doubt regain their title this season. However, what is also undisputed is that the Camp Nou club are currently in the midst of a mini-crisis.
This was confirmed by Victor Valdes’ post-match red card, and this could soon turn into a full-blown predicament.
Not only was Saturday’s loss their third in their last four matches, but Barca have also now won just five times in their previous 12 fixtures, a run that has coincided with head coach Tito Vilanova’s departure to New York for further treatment on his throat cancer. The Spaniard is not expected back until the end of the month.
By that time, the Catalans will already have faced their make-or-break Champions League return encounter with Milan. After Saturday’s loss at the Bernabeu, you wonder if Roura and his coaching staff are capable of fixing the problems currently afflicting the team.
To put it bluntly, Barcelona have major issues in both their defence and attack.
Barca have not kept a clean sheet for 13 consecutive games, with many of those goals coming from headers via set pieces. They have also now conceded first in each of their previous five games.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that the Catalans have still dominated the possession stats during this poor recent run, but they are barely troubling the opposition keeper. In fact, in the past two Clasico matches, Barcelona have barely registered a shot on target, at least by their lofty standards.
And, while it may be sacrilegious to say, the visitors looked toothless in attack for large parts of Saturday’s encounter. They were too one-dimensional and predictable at times with no Plan B when it was really needed.
Real’s decision to field the reserves against Barcelona on Saturday might have confirmed the surrender of their Liga title.
With all eyes in the capital now firmly fixed on Old Trafford this Tuesday, the subsequent morale-boosting triumph at the Bernabeu over the league leaders will have done wonders for the team’s confidence as they head into the most important fixture of the season to date.
Indeed, despite all the rancour and upheaval that has at times engulfed Mourinho and his players this campaign, they are still somehow on course for a glittering end to their three-year partnership.
Victory over United in the Champions League on Tuesday would keep the club in with a chance of a cup treble. If that were to happen, Mou could leave Spain with his head held high, especially as it will have meant him bringing home the coveted "Decima" to Madrid.
And for that very reason you have seen the energy return to the "Special One" of late. He once again attended press conferences and sparred with the media in that Machiavellian way of his, while on Saturday he was also back to his pantomime best on the sidelines as he cajoled his players this way and that.
So, Real head to England in great heart on Monday, unlike their vanquished opponents. There remains just the one dilemma for the Portuguese to wrestle with: Karim Benzema, who opened the scoring against Barca, or the hard-working Gonzalo Higuain in attack against United…