Sixteen seconds was it all took. Sixteen seconds to definitively destroy the perceived aura of impenetrability that had clothed Barcelona during the past few weeks of the La Liga campaign.
Sixteen seconds that allowed Real Madrid to once again showcase their exhilaratingly brutal counter-attacking threat. Sixteen seconds, most significantly, to lay down the first marker of the season.
With 60:09 on the clock, Ivan Rakitić’s very first touch was intercepted by James Rodriguez, who curled the ball toward the left-hand side of the halfway line. Six seconds later Isco, previously immersed in a foot race with Andrés Iniesta, somehow emerged with the ball and nudged it inwards having eluded the Barcelona playmaker and the onrushing Javier Mascherano. Cristiano Ronaldo was picked out as the clock read 60:21, and the Portuguese took one touch to swivel and another to feed James, who momentarily paused to allow Karim Benzema the time to advance beyond Sergio Busquets.
The Colombian released the Frenchman, who, without breaking stride, unerringly dispatched a low drive beyond Claudio Bravo via the inside of the left-hand post, sixteen seconds after Real Madrid had been defending a Barcelona corner-kick. Bravo, whose run without conceding in a Barcelona shirt had ended after 776 minutes earlier in the evening, was now being forced to pick the ball out of the back of the net for the third time in 26 minutes.
Real Madrid were, of course, leading 2-1 prior to that but the Frenchman’s strike – which was the first goal the visitors had conceded in La Liga in open play since Ángel Lafita’s injury-time equaliser for Getafe at Camp Nou in May – effectively ended the tie as a contest. Barcelona, overrun in midfield and with Lionel Messi muted, downed tools shortly afterwards, while Real Madrid eventually shut up shop, with Carlo Ancelotti introducing a trio of defensive substitutions as the game wore on.
Luis Enrique, whose arrival has arguably heralded the most significant new dawn at Camp Nou since Pep Guardiola’s emergence six years ago, is the first Barcelona manager to lose his maiden Clásico since Frank Rijkaard in December 2003. The concerns over Barça’s defensive vulnerability that were first aired this season after the 3-2 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain have now been magnified, with Gerard Piqué, notably, unable to arrest his slump. The Catalans have played two matches against ‘big’ teams this season and have lost both, conceding three times on each occasion.
Despite Rakitić’s impressive early season form, Enrique had reverted back to the classic midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, the triumvirate that effectively encapsulated the ideologue of the team during the period of sustained success that came during the Guardiola-Vilanova era. Although Xavi’s recent mini-renaissance has reopened the debate over his relevancy in the Enrique era, he failed to impose himself on Saturday, while Busquets and Iniesta toiled with little success.
Meanwhile, on the opposite bench, Ancelotti was once again treated to another impressive display from his central-midfield pairing of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, whose combined assumption of greater defensive duties in the wake of Alonso’s exit have helped the Italian inch closer to the equilibrium he has consistently desired. And that sense of balance was further assisted by the hard work and diligence of Isco and James, leaving many to ponder whether the team functions better without Gareth Bale. Ancelotti has stated his belief that Bale warrants a first-team berth when fit but it would seem churlish to exclude the supremely gifted Isco in the form that he is currently in.
The unstoppable force versus the immovable object was how it had been billed; the team whose backline had not been breached in eight previous matches versus the team with thirty league goals since the start of the campaign. Barcelona still top the La Liga table, but Real have won the first battle of the new chapter of the eternal rivalry. And the immovable object is no more, while the unstoppable force continues to gather pace.