The first El Clasico of the La Liga season typically serves as a statement game for whichever team comes out on top. For either Real Madrid or Barcelona, a three point head-to-head swing is usually a lasting conclusion, one that illustrates both literally and figuratively the existing gulf between first and second place, if there indeed is one.
But even with this in mind, few foresaw the emphatic statement made by Barcelona last week when they thrashed Real Madrid 4-0 at the Bernabeu. The Barca victory wasn’t a stake in the ground as much as it was a bomb threat. With their most storied competition cloaked in blood-stained white uniforms that might as well have been shrouds, Barca proved that they are, for the foreseeable future, La Liga’s supreme title-seekers.
The scary part now — for any impending challengers to the throne — is that we may have only seen the tip of the blaugrana iceberg. Just days after stomping a crater into the capitol, Luis Enrique’s side administered an additional beatdown of epic proportions on AS Roma in the Champions League. At Camp Nou this time, Barca stomped the Italians 6-1 with both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi contributing braces to the effort.
Oh, and speaking of Messi: it’s the return of the diminutive Argentine that adds a new and terrifying wrinkle into La Liga’s proceedings. As we established prior to his prodigal return in the 57th minute of last week’s Clasico, Messi isn’t exactly a required participant in order for this Barcelona team to succeed. In fact, by the time he did cross the white lines at the Bernabeu, the Catalans were already three goals to the good and soaring past their blanco counterparts. The tandem of Suarez and Neymar looked as efficient and creative as ever, while the utility-presence of Sergi Roberto — who can apparently play any and every position — has almost served as an added bonus. So it’s true, Barcelona didn’t need Messi last month, let alone last week. But one snapshot of the Messi-sponsored Roma execution midweek and all notions of them being anywhere near better without him are put to rest. After all, this goal doesn’t happen without La Pulga.
So this is where the Primera stands now, with a high-flying Barcelona side welcoming back an empowering and hungry Leo Messi. Meanwhile, Real Madrid now sit in third place, two points behind their crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid, who, despite the media ravings over Real’s new found defensive solidity, actually hold the best defensive record in the league only allowing six goals in the first twelve games. It’s an undoubtedly sour spot to be in for Rafa Benitez’s Merengues; albeit stellar, they’re just not quite good enough on either side of the ball to warrant a genuine case for the Liga crown. It’s the harsh reality of the offensive and defensive standards being set in Spain at the moment.
However, any of Barcelona’s potential Liga competitors need not look any further for hope than the Catalans’ own topsy-turvy journey that was last season. After being forced to play the first eight Liga matches of the season without new summer signing Suarez (due to the Uruguayan’s four-month ban after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup in Brazil), and dealing with the chronic headache that was the Neymar-Santos scandal, Barca were dealt a seminal blow when FIFA had judged their youth academy registration practices to be illegal, resulting in a two-window transfer ban.
And things continued to get worse.
A day after losing away to Real Sociedad on January 4th — which knocked Barcelona to second-place, one point behind then-league-leaders Real Madrid — the club sacked Director of Football Andoni Zubizarreta, also resulting in his assistant — and former club captain — Carles Puyol resigning from his position. This sent the club — if it wasn’t already — into full-fledged crisis mode. I probably don’t need to tell you that Barca would eventually right the ship, even emblazoning it in gold by winning La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League just four months later.
The point is that all things, good and bad, are ultimately fleeting, especially when the characters in the play are operating at world-class levels, as most of Real Madrid’s squad are. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric; they might currently be beaten-down, black-eyed figures, but it only takes a couple of rogue bances of the ball for them to remind us all that champions don’t only come in blaugrana.