Almost 2,000 days since the last time it had happened here – 1,954 to be precise – the Santiago Bernabéu saw Barcelona defeated. Through the rain they watched as Vinícius Júnior scored the goal that changed everything: a night, that had begun nervously, and perhaps the destination of the title race too. For almost an hour they had suffered, as if awaiting the inevitable against a side seemingly sure of its superiority, but now they celebrated. At the end Marcelo slipped to his knees and the arena leapt to its feet, symbolic of what this meant.
The reaction after that first hour began with a shot from Isco, flying just over via Marc-André ter Stegen’s glove, before Vinícius gave Madrid a lead that Mariano Díaz doubled on the final whistle, as if to underline how fast things can change and Zinedine Zidane’s seemingly superhuman ability to revive footballers. Mariano had not played a single minute this season and had been on the pitch only 30 seconds but now he scored.
Madrid had been on edge, Barça presented with the chance to tip them over and into the abyss, virtually ending their hopes of winning the league days after Manchester City had seemed to do the same in Europe. Perhaps that, too, will feel different now. Madrid are back on top and suddenly infused with life, electricity running through them.
Barcelona had flatlined, their plan failing. They had appeared in control, rarely troubled, but when Madrid rebelled and this place burst into life they could not live with it. Unexpectedly they were overrun, the way the game and their world had been turned upside down expressed in the moment, with five minutes to go, that Lionel Messi took down Casemiro. It spoke of frustration: Messi had been stopped brilliantly by the Brazilian. He had also passed up two great chances and by then knew defeat was coming. What no one imagined then was that it would be by two goals. It hurt enough already.
Quique Setién had said Barcelona would seek to dominate possession and that this game was more important for Madrid, two points behind at the top and in what Zidane had described as a “delicate position”. His team appeared to be playing with that – as if Barcelona had time, content for Madrid to feel the pressure build, the need to win drawing them into decisions that could cost them. Ultimately though, the clock worked against Barcelona, not Madrid – a team you should never leave alive.
Isco had won a corner after 53 seconds but that immediately gave way to a two-minute long period of Barcelona possession which was an early indication of the way things would be. Slowly Barcelona took control – and slowly was often the word, playing up and playing back again, hold and wait, pass and then pass some more. The control was theirs and opportunities would eventually be, until it suddenly slipped away from them in the second half.
Up until the opening goal Vinícius had dashed often but decided poorly, Madrid able to create little, quick but lacking clarity. Barcelona dominated but the chances which eventually arrived were wasted. Antoine Griezmann shot over, set up by Jordi Alba and Messi. Arturo Vidal was sent through but he gave the ball up for Griezmann who did the same for Messi, and his snapshot was saved easily. Then suddenly Arthur went clean through, outrunning Toni Kroos – not the fastest of foot races – only to be denied by Thibaut Courtois. And soon afterwards Sergio Busquets’ wonderful clipped ball left Messi alone. He brought it down and, as it bounced back up, sidefooted goalwards. Again Courtois saved.
When the game changed, it came from, of all things, a short corner from which Isco drew a fabulous save from Ter Stegen. This place and this team, which had mostly watched the game go by, appeared awakened. Gerard Piqué had to scramble Isco’s header off the line and Karim Benzema volleyed just over as Barcelona lost their grip and the ball, the momentum Madrid’s and the noise rising.
Soon it was off the scale. Kroos slipped the ball through for Vinícius, running into the area. Piqué stood off, not advancing until it was too late. Perhaps he was waiting for Vinícius to make the mistake for him. Instead he did, the Brazilian’s shot going in at the near post off his leg.
The roar then was matched by the one that greeted Marcelo and Raphaël Varane cutting off Messi when he ran through. Marcelo punched the air and roared. They all did.
Afterwards, Piqué spoke of his disappointment at losing “worst Madrid” side he’d ever seen. “We controlled the game in the first half, which was the worst I have seen Madrid play in all the years I have played at the Bernabéu,” said the defender.