Six months later, Real Madrid returned to the top of the table and at the cost of their two great rivals. As a storm tore through Valdebebas, the 12th ground to host this fixture throughout history, they defeated Barcelona 2-1 to overhaul Atlético Madrid. It might only be for one night – Diego Simeone’s side travel to Betis on Sunday – but it was some night: wet and wild, the ball flying from one end to the other until the final whistle went, leaving Zinedine Zidane’s team as leaders.
Ultimately, goals from Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos were enough but they were made to resist. Not just here, but all season. This was another resurrection for a manager who has something almost mystical about him. For so much of the season this seemed impossible, Atlético top for six months and disappearing into the distance, but they are favourites now, after all those weeks when they knew a single loss would be the end.
Obligation had become opportunity and in an open lively start, the ball moving fast across a wet surface, Madrid grasped it. Two goals inside half an hour demonstrated the value of the willingness to run at opponents, a portrait of two men who should be the club’s future, as well as its present. They also, in truth, offered an unflattering portrait of Barcelona’s defence, not just because of the size of the room into which Madrid could run but also the inability to deal with the men heading at them.
A brilliant opening goal began with Federico Valverde – part-man, part locomotive – seeing wide space ahead and setting off from deep inside his own half. By the time he had picked up speed, stopping him was difficult anyway; stopping him by waving a weak leg in his rough direction as he ran past was even harder, but that was all the resistance that Jordi Alba offered. Dashing into space, Valverde found Lucas Vázquez sprinting up alongside him. The ball into the box was low, and perfectly weighted, the finish from Benzema was stunning, a fabulous flick beyond Marc-André ter Stegen and into the net.
Opened on the left, Barcelona were then opened on the right, Vinícius eventually halted when he went tumbling on the edge of the area having clipped the heel of Ronald Araújo. Toni Kroos took the free-kick and his shot hitting Sergiño Dest, who had turned his back, changing course and going in, Alba failing to head clear it as it came to him on the line.
Madrid had control and Barcelona at their mercy. Barcelona hadn’t started badly and they did have opportunities thereafter. Lionel Messi had released Alba for a cross that Thibaut Courtois had to palm away and had then deliver the cross from which Ousmane Dembélé probably should have scored. Dembélé would also swipe wildly at the ball inside the Madrid before Messi bent a corner directly and probably deliberately against the frame. The Argentinian was then blocked by Courtois as a corner fell to him from close range at the far post on the stroke of half-time.
And yet the game was where Madrid wanted it, given the opportunity to run every time they took possession, and if anyone should have added to the scoring before the break it was them. Another surging run had seen Valverde go clear and thud a shot against the post, Ter Stegen somehow recovering to save Vázquez’s follow-up. For a while, Barcelona were torn apart. And although they did steady themselves, although they created opportunities, Ronald Koeman made a change of personnel and formation at half time, sending on Antoine Griezmann as the heavens opened.
The ball was Barcelona’s, the territory too. And although Madrid seemed happy that way, aware of the visitors’ vulnerability and ready to rip into them through the storm, Barcelona did pull one back on the hour. Griezmann leapt over Alba’s cross and Óscar Mingueza shifted his weight to guide the ball past Courtois. Another Messi-Alba combination might have brought a second soon after but on the edge of the six-yard box and with three men waiting for the ball, Alba’s choice was the wrong one.
Barcelona were pushing Madrid back ever deeper but even from there the threat remained as Luka Modric sent Vinícius scampering clear with a brilliant bending ball delivered, under pressure, from the edge of his own area. With Benzema rushing to join him, a mess was made of that break and much the same could be said of Toni Kroos’s diving header from close range soon after. Suddenly, Messi was up the other end bending a shot over, this game turning wild in the wet. A lot of fun too.
Alas, it was also coming to an end, Barcelona chasing and Martin Braithwaite tumbling and screaming for a penalty that was waved away as time slipped from them, all of the players drenched exhausted players, the men in white left feeling that maybe they had done it again.