It was a strange Clasico for all sorts of reasons.
Strange in the way that FC Barcelona utterly dominated the first half. And strange in the way that the home team fell apart for a long spell to open the second, allowing Real Madrid back in the game. And stranger still for how Barca then reclaimed the contest and ran away with a 5-1 victory on Sunday, courtesy of a Luis Suarez hat-trick.
But it was strange, above all, for the absence of both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in this clash for the first time since Dec. 23, 2007.
Still, Barca, without the injured Messi, prevailed to reclaim first place in La Liga and cast Real to ninth place and deeper into crisis, relegating manager Julen Lopetegui to a sort of zombie status – already fired yet somehow still in the job. Real sold Ronaldo to Juventus over the summer and it’s apparent now that he is badly missed.
It was a game that provided some answers. Barca got a resounding affirmation to its ability to cope without the 31-year-old Messi, who has a huge amount of miles on his short legs. And Real now knows without any doubt at all that things aren’t working under Lopetegui, whose decision to take off a defender at halftime made for an embarrassing score.
But this entertaining Clasico proved instructive on another matter. It settled a long-running debate.
During the 9-year halcyon of the Messi-Ronaldo era among Spain’s duopoly, there was, in retrospect and unbeknownst to us then, a kind of chicken-and-egg dynamic at work.
Lionel Messi watched El Clasico from the sidelines due to injury. (Getty)
Messi and Ronaldo can each lay a reasonable claim to the title of greatest soccer player of all time, having both far exceeded Diego Maradona in the length of their primes and Pele in their weekly accomplishments at the club level. But it was always felt that their achievements should be placed in the context of the superclubs they turned out for year after year.
Sure, Messi was plainly transcendent, but he also had the generational playmakers Xavi and Andres Iniesta teeing him up for most all of those historic seasons. And at other points, he had help from Samuel Eto’o, Dani Alves, David Villa, Neymar and Luis Suarez to help carry the attacking load.
Ronaldo, likewise, was surely coddled by the service from Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Marcelo and Toni Kroos. And he was freed from having to do much defensive work by a back line that was among the world’s best year after year.
Yes, they were great, the line of questioning often went, but how would they fare if you dressed them in an Albacete or a Brighton and Hove Albion jersey?
And in recent years, the conventional wisdom was that Ronaldo was in a kind of Las Vegas-period Elvis stage, still talented and dazzling, but doing much less than he once had – poaching goals rather than creating them by himself. Just as it had been thought for years that Messi was becoming less and less capable of carrying his team on his own ever-slouching shoulders.
As it turns out, we had it the wrong way around. The right question wasn’t how much their teammates enabled Ronaldo and Messi. It was how much better they made their teammates.
Because in this first post-Ronaldo Clasico, Barca mostly capitalized on a Real side that’s collapsing without the preening Portuguese. Things won’t be so easy without the little Argentine against, well, better opposition, because Real’s defense was completely disconnected.
Philippe Coutinho put a quick first goal on the board for Barca, sweeping in a chance forged by a wonderful touch and run from Jordi Alba.
Raphael Varane then kicked Suarez on the heel in Real’s box and the Uruguayan converted his own penalty.
After the intermission, a big scramble in front of Barca’s goal worked out nicely for Marcelo, who chested down the loose ball and managed to half-volley it home.
Real seemed rejuvenated after a dispiriting first half and Luka Modric pinged a ball off the post that would have equalized things. Suarez too, hit the post with a flying backheel.
But he would not miss again, scoring with a well-placed header …
… and then chipping the hapless Thibaut Courtois after a Sergio Ramos mistake to complete his hat-trick.
Substitute Arturo Vidal got to record the fifth to complete the rout.
In Spain, they call the five-goal score a manita – a little hand. It’s the ultimate humiliation. For regal Real, no less. At arch-enemies Barca.
Since Ronaldo’s departure, Real have had a rough time of it, now losing four of their last five league games while tying the other and getting shut out in three of those matches. It’s clear now that rather than make Real more static and impinge on younger attackers like Gareth Bale, Isco and Lucas Vazquez, Ronaldo was actually papering over larger issues with his astonishing finishing efficiency.
Perhaps Lopetegui’s tactics haven’t helped, but then he was a successful coach before joining Real and apparently under the impression that Ronaldo would be staying when he signed. And not that there’s any replacing Ronaldo anyway, but Real barely even tried, only bringing back youth product Mariano from Olympique Lyon. As ever, Real’s inextricable politics were at work there, after they’d pushed back-to-back-to-back Champions League winning manager Zinedine Zidane out the door.
Real is taking a harsh punishment for its decision, for several of its decisions. Because Ronaldo was badly missed on Sunday. While Barca didn’t even really miss Messi at all.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.