Madrid, Dec 11: It felt like the balance of Spanish power was changing as Real Madrid prepared to host Barcelona in the first league “clasico” of the season on Saturday.
Madrid was on a 15-game winning run—equaling a 50-year-old record—while two-time defending champion Barcelona was huffing and puffing to keep up, three points behind in the standings despite having played one game extra.
When Karim Benzema scored for Madrid after just 21 seconds, that impression seemed confirmed, and the Bernabeu crowd sensed they might be watching Barcelona's years of dominance coming to an end.
But Madrid's apparent ascension was washed away with the rain in the capital.
Lionel Messi slipped through the Madrid defense to set up the equalizer for Alexis Sanchez in the 30th minute and Barcelona scored two second-half goals through Xavi's deflected effort and Cesc Fabregas' header, wresting back top spot in the Spanish league.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said his players were “sad but calm” after the defeat and claimed bad luck played its part, but the Portuguese is now facing the biggest challenge of his career.
How do you solve a problem like Barcelona?
Mourinho has tried smothering defensive tactics with limited success. On Saturday, he opted for a more expansive, high-pressing approach, eschewing a third defensive midfielder and trusting Mesut Oezil to provide creativity instead.
“I decided to play that way because we were playing at home and we wanted to win,” Mourinho said.
But the plan backfired and the Madrid coach has now got to go back to the drawing board with more questions than answers.
“We were superior to Madrid,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi explained simply. “We've been faithful to our philosophy, keeping hold of the ball and we were superior.”
As expected, Madrid's players started the game at breakneck speed, but it was a simple mistake by Valdes that presented the home side with the quickfire opening goal.
The Barcelona goalkeeper shanked his attempted clearance straight to Angel Di Maria and the ball eventually found its way to Benzema who smashed into the roof of the net.
That goal, timed at 21 seconds, is believed to be the fastest in clasico history and only the fifth between the teams in the first minute of play.
“The perfect image of how the team responded is Victor Valdes,” said Guardiola. “After the goal he kept playing the ball. I prefer that he loses that ball and we keep playing out from the back, and that's what we did.”
The early strike fueled the electric atmosphere in the Bernabeu, with white flag-waving fans baying at every adverse refereeing decision and even cheering throw-ins.
Barcelona threatened for the first time in the seventh minute when Madrid defender Sergio Ramos slipped when in possession and presented the ball to Messi, but goalkeeper Iker Casillas produced a fine low save to thwart the Argentine forward.
Madrid kept the Barcelona attack at bay, and Ronaldo looked to double the lead in the 19th when he advanced through midfield and stung Valdes' palms with a shot the keeper could only push away.
Casillas punched over a free kick from Xavi three minutes later, before Ronaldo skewed wide with a clear chance in the 25th—clutching his head in despair at the waste.
The struggling Ronaldo drew catcalls from the normally adoring Bernabeu crowd when he opted for a speculative shot in the 28th when a cross might have been the better option.
With Barcelona's attack stuttering, it took a familiar stroke of genius from Messi to create the equalizer.
Messi collected the ball just inside the opposition half and embarked on a mazy dribble that drew several defenders before he fed Sanchez to slide the ball past Casillas.
“I didn't like the first goal (they scored),” said Mourinho with a grimace. “It's similar to other occasions when we've conceded against Barcelona. The ball was there to be won.”
It was not Messi's wizardry but just raw luck that put Barcelona ahead. Xavi tried a chopped volley from the edge of the area and the shot took a huge deflection off Marcelo to wrong-foot Casillas in the 53rd.
More evidence that it was not to be Ronaldo's night came when the Madrid striker headed a glorious chance wide from Alonso's cross in the 65th and the miss was ruthlessly punished.
Just a minute later, Dani Alves rampaged down the right flank and sent a cross that Fabregas met with a diving header across goal to give Barcelona an unassailable two-goal cushion.
As Madrid trudged off the pitch at the final whistle, Mourinho walked over to the Barcelona bench and shook hands with Guardiola's assistant Tito Vilanova.
Vilanova, who was gouged in the eye by Mourinho after their Supercopa match at the start of the season, was back after recovering from surgery to remove a tumor on his parotid gland.
“I just wished him good health,” said Mourinho. “It's the same as I would wish anybody, whether their problems are big or small.”