It was the Clasico of Clasicos, a game you could watch forever. But for all its brilliance, and for all it could come to mean in the title race, it might have raised more questions than it answered.
Even now I have to admit I didn't see it coming. Leading up to the game, there was little indication that Barcelona would play that well. But I think we all knew that on any given day, against their biggest rival, something like this was possible.
It’s obviously well-documented that Barcelona have not been at their best, have been inconsistent and are at the end of a wonderful cycle that we may not see for years to come.
Writing after the match, Bleacher Report's Guillem Balague argued that the win only "papers over the cracks" for Barcelona, who still have issues to sort out.
But with that said, we have to remember that great players, when challenged, can rise to the highest of heights. Real Madrid were good on Sunday, but you can’t discount greatness, and while Barcelona have not been at their best this season, they showed that they still have greatness in their ranks.
Now the question is, will this be the catalyst to put them back on top? Or was this a one-off performance against their biggest rival?
"This was our last chance," Barcelona manager Tata Martino told FCBarcelona.com. "We didn't want to be left out of the fight for the title."
Martino added: "La Liga has started over. We’re back in the fight for the title."
Without the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, the profile of the match felt somewhat smaller, but that perhaps was one reason why this particular El Clasico was so wonderful. The players didn’t have to deal with all the drama that we usually associate with Mourinho, and to a degree because of his brilliance with Guardiola.
On one hand, Carlo Ancelotti, whom I can easily place among the top five managers of all time, has given a platform to many of his players not only to be creative but also to play freely.
For example, on Sunday against Barcelona, we saw Angel Di Maria playing wonderfully and just being Di Maria. Restricted under Mourinho's system with its discipline and organization, Di Maria has been reborn under Ancelotti and in this El Clasico, he was simply irresistible to watch.
The power of Xabi Alonso and especially Luka Modric has been another area of strength, and most importantly, Real Madrid are a team that no longer is dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo alone. Now they have a much more flexible system that allows players such as Karim Benzema and Di Maria to thrive.
Leading up to El Clasico, these were some of the reasons that made me believe Real Madrid were in the right frame of mind, that they were in the right form and had the right balance to dispose of Barcelona and put themselves in great position to win La Liga.
But that's where I was wrong. As the saying goes, form is temporary, but class is permanent.
To many—before we get to some wonderful performances from the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets, to name a few—rightly or wrongly, the narrative was always going to be about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Ronaldo didn’t play badly at all, but Messi was by miles the better and more influential player. This season, Messi perhaps has not been in the best frame of mind, because of his injury, or because of his tax issues, or the issues surrounding Barcelona, Sandro Rossell and Neymar.
And in general, Barcelona have been far from their best for a long time now.
As for personal awards, I will fully admit that Ronaldo earned the Ballon d'Or, and I almost wonder if Leo Messi will have acknowledged that as well. But when you take away all that and look purely at two players in terms of talent, for me there’s no doubt that Messi is the most gifted footballer of this era.
Ronaldo’s biggest problem, of course, is Messi because if there was no Messi, Ronaldo would be the best player in the world year after year after year. And the difference between the two was wonderfully on display in El Clasico.
Messi caused all kinds of problems for Real Madrid, not just with his vision in picking out Iniesta for the opening goal but also with his pass to Neymar that alone caused the penalty and, of course, scoring all three of his goals.
But the biggest problem for Real Madrid was that Messi took on the role of playmaker on Sunday. He dropped much deeper than he normally does, virtually taking all of his team's creative responsibility on his shoulders. By doing so, he freed Iniesta to be at his wonderful best in a position, by the way, that I feel is best for him as well.
At the age of 26, Lionel Messi is the player with most goals (21) ànd the player with most assists (12) in the history of the clasico.— barcastuff (@barcastuff) March 24, 2014
Looking at the starting lineups before the game, I thought that Real Madrid’s midfield, which included Alonso and Modric, was going to be too much for Barcelona.
But in fact, we saw the opposite. Alonso and Modric were nonexistent by their high standards, and we saw finally what some still refuse to see—that Sergio Busquets is the best holding midfielder in the game today.
It’s easy for us to talk about all the usual protagonists, and there were many on both sides that made a huge impact. But I could just as easily make a case for the importance of Busquets, who was at his best on both sides of the ball.
It was simply wonderful to watch a player who not only reads the game well, but can defend by anticipating two moves before the play happens—and still serve as a link-up player in the attack on just about every play.
I’m sure that some will be quick to point out some of the negatives of Busquets' game, such as his theatrics from time to time. Those are valid arguments, but at the end of the day, he’s an absolutely superb footballer.
Xavi has not been himself for almost two years now, but again it would be remiss of us not to point out how good he was in this well-oiled machine in the midfield against Real Madrid.
On another topic, I wanted briefly to discuss the referee. This fixture has a history of controversial incidents, and in comparison to others, I thought he was very good, with one exception—which was giving a penalty to Real Madrid for a foul that happened outside the area.
Before the first penalty, I thought he allowed the players to play, and all the major decisions that he made, with the exception of Ronaldo’s penalty, were spot on. Later on, the two penalties and red card for Sergio Ramos were justifiable.
Who will win La Liga?
Having said all that, it was refreshing to see two wonderful teams produce so much entertainment that I wanted this game to go on forever. Real Madrid under Ancelotti have shown incredible progress, and it’s obvious to most that they have a chance not only to win La Liga but also La Decima—their 10th European title—as well.
As for Barcelona, with this one performance, they reminded us that they cannot be discounted for both titles as well. To be honest, I did not see that ahead of this game.
It’s not easy to rediscover that certain something that made you special and untouchable in the first place.
The big question is, can they repeat this sort of performance at the business end of the season? They’ve shown they can do it, but we need to know if they can do it on a consistent basis.