Such is Barcelona's iconography that their place atop the footballing world seems eternal, but just over two seasons ago, they were a team in transition. This was before the team had committed to a Xavi-centric model, before Pep Guardiola took over, before writers started disguising recent history in the terms of lore. still, it was a mere 30 months ago that the team Frank Rijkaard built around Ronaldinho ran its course, allowing Real Madrid to claim their 31st Liga while Barcelona, for the first time in three seasons, finished outside the top two.
As the Spanish Primera drifts deeper into its duopoly, finishing outside the top two sounds like a huge failure. At least, for the ruling dyad, it sounds catastrophic. Back in spring of 2008, Barcelona realized this is what the world would become and adjusted accordingly, letting Frank Rijkaard move to Turkey while Ronaldinho drifted to Milan. With the purchase of Daniel Alves and the homecoming of Gerard Piqué they were able to reverse course, and while the maturation of Pedro and Sergio Busquets did not meet with as much success, the ascension two Barcelona-bread players only emboldened the love affair the world’s having the Catalan titans. Not only has Barcelona become the worldwide footballing standard, but they can build and rebuild from within, hinting at a persistence to their dominance.
When you shift focus and consider Real Madrid’s 31 league and nine European titles, you have all the context you need for Monday’s match, though we’ll endeavor to add a sliver of depth. In light of Real Madrid’s perpetual if relative primacy, Barcelona’s two year reign as Spanish champions (and worldwide darlings) is an uprising. It’s practically an insurrection (from a Bernabeu-centric point of view), one that’s forced Los Blancos to bring in the kind of reinforcements accessible to the biggest club in the world.
With José Mourinho hours away from his first Clasico, there is renewed belief amongst Madridistras, but back before Mourinho predecessors Manuel Pellegrini and Juande Ramos it was Bernd Schuster, five Clasico’s past, that was able to inspire the same confidence.
May 5, 2008 – Real Madrid 4-1 Barcelona - One year before Barcelona posted one of the most convincing victories in the history of this derby, Real Madrid that had boldly affirmed their primacy, putting one of the final nails in Frank Rijkaard’s coffin with a 4-1 win at the Bernabeu. Raúl scored within 13 minutes. Arjen Robben followed seven minutes later, and with Gonzalo Higuain and Ruud van Nistelrooy goals in the second half, Real Madrid had done their part to ensure Villareal would claim second place.
It was the fifth successive Clasico that Barcelona had failed to win, and shortly after, Barcelona announced youth team coach Pep Guardiola would succeed Rijkaard. Within a month, Guardiola let it be known that Ronaldinho, Deco, and Samuel Eto’o would be allowed to leave the club, and although the Cameroonian striker would stay for one more year, playing a huge part in the team that won the treble the following season, Guardiola had immediately signaled a return to Barcelona’s core.
December 13, 2008 – Barcelona 2-0 Real Madrid - Guardiola’s time at Barcelona had gotten off to a surprising start with a loss at newly promoted Numancia, and although the Blaugrana had since climbed to the top of the league, feelings of fragility still floated around the team. Until they were tested against Real Madrid, fans couldn’t know where the team truly stood.
Unfortunately for Madrid, their squad was on much more uncertain footing. Schuster had been dismissed weeks before, replaced by former Sevilla boss Juande Ramos, who had just been dismissed by Tottenham Hotspur. Though Ramos would soon guide Real Madrid to an undefeated span that ran from late 2008 into late spring, he couldn’t guide his team past Guardiola’s emerging juggernaut. The Merengues held out for 80 minutes, but late goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi gave Barcelona their first Clasico win since November 2005.
May 2, 2009 – Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona - If there was one result that spurned Madrid’s summer 2009 spending spree, this was it. Real Madrid hadn’t lost in league since their trip to the Nou Camp, with only a draw against Atlético keeping them from carrying an 18-match winning streak into the season’s second Clasico. Barcelona was also streaking into the match, having gone over two months without losing in league. As much as this match defined the gap between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the streaks the clubs carried into it accentuated the chasm between Spain’s top two and the rest of the league.
For a few moments, it looked as if it hopes around Juande Ramos’s stewardship of Los Blancos would be rewarded, with Gonzalo Higuain scoring the match’s first goal in the 14th minute. Barcelona responded quickly and often, scoring three goals in the next 22 minutes to take a 3-1 lead into half. That scoreline was doubled in the second half, giving Barcelona a shocking 6-2 victory, ending Real Madrid’s faint hopes of defending their titles, sparking the biggest spending spree in football history.
By the teams’ next meeting, Real Madrid had added Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi Alonso, Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa and Karim Benzema. The second Florentino Perez era had brought new hope and more loans to the Bernabeu, but building from the deficit of a four goal loss, not even record spending could transcend the distance to Barcelona.
November 29, 2009 – Barcelona 1-0 Real Madrid - Amidst Real Madrid's five Clasico losing streak is this outlier, a practically even encounter that exhibited the importance of scoring the first goal against Barcelona. Real Madrid didn’t get the goal despite one or two early chances. In the second half, Barcelona’s huge signing – both in size and salary – was the difference, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming off the bench to score the match’s only goal. After the 56th minute, Barcelona would dominate the ball, overcoming Sergio Busquets’ 63rd minute dismissal to bleed out the match and take control of La Liga.
The match's lesson - the importance of scoring first against Barcelona - remains true today. If you give up the first goal, the huge amount of possession Barça keeps can bleed out a match. And that's if they don't take advantage of your need to chase the game. However, if you score the first goal, Barça's styles and tendencies make them slightly less equipped to break down a bunkered-in side. Ibrahimovic was supposed to help that, giving them a direct route when tiki taka fails. Now, they're left with the right foot of Dani Alves and the memories of Stamford Bridge.
April 10, 2010 – Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona - Though this was the most recent Clasico it is arguably the least memorable one since Madrid's last win. Perhaps that’s because this was the only meeting where Barcelona’s primacy was a given. During the 2008-09 season Barcelona was still ascending, and in November 2009 there was hope that the new Galacticos would renew Real Madrid’s dominance. Coming into this match, there was no reason to think the result would be different, so when Barcelona won 2-0, there was a quiet acceptance. This is the state of the world.
At least, that was the prevailing attitude, though there were hints that some of the main actors saw things differently. Curiously, Pep Guardiola pushed Daniel Alves into an attacking role for the match’s first half, putting Carles Puyol in a place where he could directly match-up with Cristiano Ronaldo. Reminiscent of the 2009 Champions League final, Puyol helped shut him down. While Guardiola would revert after Barcelona’s unconvincing first half (and a shift in Ronaldo’s deployment by Manuel Pellegrini), his initial tactic revealed the coach’s uncertainty. Although Barcelona’s primacy seemed evident to most, Guardiola saw a way his side could be beaten.
And that brings us to today’s match, another chance for Real Madrid to test a re-formed team. Mesüt Özil, Sami Khedira, Ricardo Carvalho and Ángel Di Maria give the Merengues another new look, but the new reason for hope will be adorning a skinny tie on the sidelines. José Mourinho, who in April defiantly glared to the heights of Camp Nou after Internazionale eliminated Barcelona from Champions League, returns to the place where he served as a coach under Bobby Robson, this time hoping to lead Barça’s arch rivals in a dethroning.
It speaks to Mourinho’s power that his presence is enough to shift this match's questions from Real Madrid to Barcelona. Real Madrid has yet to be beaten this year, be it in Cup, League, or Europe. The system Mourinho used to break Barcelona in last year is being replicated at Real Madrid. In the seven months since Mourinho saw Barcelona out of Champions League, has Guardiola developed a new plan? An alternative? While Barcelona was one controversial offside call away from progressing past Inter, this Real Madrid team is arguably more talented than the Nerazzurri Mourinho had last season.
Recent history warns against thinking Barcelona the underdog. When Real Madrid has reloaded, they’ve been rebuked. While it seems the momentum has shifted back to the capital, consider what would happen if Barcelona won. What kind of reformation would Madrid have to undertake if this team can’t reclaim Spain?