After tasting European defeat in midweek for the first time this season, both Barcelona and Real Madrid knew that this El Clasico was a season-defining fixture.
The Camp Nou has proved to be a formidable destination for opposing teams this season, highlighted by the fact that Barcelona had enjoyed a streak of 54 successive home matches without defeat. Yet, Real Madrid have been nothing short of extraordinary this season themselves, winning 27 of their 33 league matches and scoring a record-breaking 107 goals in the process. Long considered the second best team in Spain after their decorated opponents, Mourinho's side last night laid down the gauntlet in a 2-1 win to show that the power has shifted back towards the capital for the first time in Pep Guardiola's reign.
Although it signals only a second El Clasico triumph for Mourinho in his personal duel against Guardiola, the disciplined and organised manner in which his Los Blancos side outclassed the Catalan purists was admirable and genius. For all Barcelona's possession, they lacked invention, and Iker Casillas in the Madrid goal surely enjoyed one of his quieter trips to the Camp Nou as he was rarely troubled. In fact, it was the first time since 2007 that Real Madrid have left Barcelona with any form of result, having not scored in their previous three league visits.
Notorious for its histrionic nature and heated confrontations, Pep Guardiola's pre-match quip “Good luck to the referee” highlighted the impact of the official in Europe's greatest footballing contest. With the game being broadcasted to over 400 million viewers worldwide, the spotlight was heavily focused on both sets of players and referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco in what would once again prove to be a mouth-watering battle of passion and pride.
Pep Guardiola surprisingly opted to draft in young startlets Cristian Tello and Thiago Alcantara in place of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, who had both enjoyed debut derby victories over Real Madrid, having both scored in the 3-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in December. Once again, Javier Mascherano was preferred to Gerard Pique at centre-back. In contrast, Jose Mourinho vouched in favour of experience, selecting Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira as holding midfielders behind a deadly attacking force of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo while Fabio Coentrao was given the nod ahead of Marcelo at left-back.
The game began in its typical frantic fashion, with the boisterous Catalan crowd jeering the Real Madrid players whenever they obtained possession.
Set pieces would prove to be Barcelona's achilles heel and Victor Valdes produced a wonderful reflex save to tip over Cristiano Ronaldo's goalbound header from Mesut Ozil's fourth-minute corner. However, Madrid's bright start was rewarded in the 17th minute when Ozil's outswinging corner was met by Pepe and the out-of-position Valdes could only parry the ball and Sami Khedira fumbled the ball over the line as Carles Puyol failed to clear. For all the quality on show, it took the scrappiest of goals to open the scoring and send the travelling madrileños into raptures. Just as they had done at the Bernabeu in December, Mourinho's side were leading again.
Real Madrid were playing with a confident swagger and a goal ahead, they resorted to tactics similar to those of Chelsea in midweek, frustrating the home side with a series of blocks and defensive pressure, relying on sporadic counter attacks led by Angel Di Maria and Ronaldo on either flank.
Cristian Tello has blossomed since his integration into the first-team in the latter half of the campaign but the young La Masia prodigy performed with a youthful naivety and rashness, spurning the best of his side's goalscoring opportunities. Whilst one cannot deny the boy's raw potential, Pep Guardiola's decision to leave €37 million international winger Alexis Sanchez on the bench must surely be one that he regrets this morning.
Barcelona's best chance fell the way of Xavi, when Messi's exquisite reverse pass found him all alone in the box with just Casillas to beat but the Spanish international midfielder slotted the ball wide of the far-hand post. It was one of the Argentinian's few notable contributions in an unusually anonymous performance, though that was in large part to the outstanding defensive resilience of Real Madrid's backline.
The game was rarely plagued by theatrical antics which have been known to disfavour the clash in recent seasons but the early stages of the second half did result in Alberto Undiano Mallenco brandishing his cards on several occasions as Barcelona tirelessly struggled to penetrate the Madrid defence, led heroically by Pepe and Sergio Ramos.
However, Barcelona restored parity on 70 minutes when Alexis Sanchez bundled the ball over the line at the second time of asking only moments after entering the fray. Messi's slalom dribble fell to Tello on the edge of the box and his shot was blocked before Adriano's left-footed effort was deflected into the path of the pouncing Chilean super-sub who converted the ball home despite Casillas's valiant attempts. It was game on and it looked as though Barcelona would have the strength and momentum to pull off a vital comeback.
Yet the league leaders have a shown a mental shrewdness all season long and two of their best performers combined once again to hammer the final nail in Barcelona's coffin. Mesut Ozil picked up the ball midway inside the Barcelona half before sending a sublime curled pass into the path of the onrushing Ronaldo who skillfully jinxed past Valdes and finished with aplomb for the 42nd time in the league this season, setting a new La Liga record and extending his tally to one greater than Lionel Messi.
Guardiola's side looked shell-shocked, aware that their La Liga hopes were hanging by a thread and despite throwing on Pedro and Fabregas late on, they could not find a way to reduce the deficit once again.
The final whistle sparked wild celebrations from the Real Madrid players, as they surged into a seven point lead with only four games remaining. The defeat means that Barcelona now trail in the head-to-head encounters with Real Madrid (87-46-86), a statistic they have not led since 1932.
With their Champions League destiny also in the balance, Pep Guardiola appears to be facing the most challenging stage of his brief managerial career. While he was quick to rule out Barcelona's hopes of a fourth successive league title, he remains optimistic for Tuesday's semi-final home tie against Chelsea. “We played the game we wanted to play. We had our chances, but it is never easy against a team of this level. We’re not going to retain the league title, and now we have to focus on the Champions League. It won’t be simple, we have to find the way to attack Chelsea, and we have to try and forget today’s game.”
If both teams can manage to overturn their Champions League deficits we could be in for the most classic of all El Clasico's but until then the bragging rights very much lie with Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.