In tonight's Copa del Rey, Real Madrid traveled to Barcelona and throttled them 3-1 to oust their rivals from the Spanish Cup. It was a shocking result in what many consider to be the world's greatest derby. Since former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola's hiring in 2008, Barça has dominated El Clasico while cementing their reputation as the best team in the world, and maybe the best team ever assembled.
But all that's over now. Pep is gone. Barcelona's core—comprising Lionel Messi (already thought by many to be the greatest player ever), and stars like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, and Gerard Pique—is aging, and, more importantly, calcifying. Collectively, they seem to be running out of ideas.
Unless they fall down a well or something, Barcelona should win La Liga this year. But you get a glimpse of their mortality whenever they play younger, faster, stronger teams with disciplined, physical midfielders and defenders, and athletic, dynamic wingers. In last week's Champions League matchup, Barcelona kept the ball for an unreal 72 percent of the game against AC Milan but barely recorded a chance in the second half and lost, 2-0. In today's El Clasico, a better Real Madrid team ran Barcelona off the pitch.
Madrid broke the scoring at 13 minutes when Cristiano Ronaldo, isolated on the right side of the box against Pique, goaded the center back into sliding before knocking the ball forward and getting taken down for a penalty. In the 57th, Real Madrid left winger Angel di Maria cut inside on Puyol before dropping a shoulder and slicing back to the end line, leaving Puyol in a full split, his anklebones poking through his socks, and Ronaldo open on the back post to slot home a rebound. Before Barcelona could get on the board, Madrid made it 3-0 when Raphael Varane scored on a free header off a corner.
In theory, it's never been really difficult to beat Barcelona. Every starter on their team, with the exception of Puyol, Pique, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets, is the approximate size and weight of a 12-year-old boy in your local AYSO league. They're also not particularly interested in defending, and even if they were there's no evidence they'd be any good at it. For a while they had wingers who could cut in and score (think Messi, Henry, and David Villa). But Henry is collecting checks in the MLS now; David Villa is coming off injury and looking to leave; and Messi has moved to a central striker role. Paradoxically, this has made Messi nearly impossible to stop, and he scored more goals in 2012 than anyone else has scored in any calendar year, ever. But with him in the middle, Barcelona has no width on the pitch. Their wingers aren't the dangerous converted strikers of seasons past. And they can't attack teams through the air by crossing, because Messi stands only 5-foot-6.
Midfielders Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and even Alex Song are still some of the greatest passers you'll ever see, so Barcelona will dominate many games in possession alone. But what Real Madrid did today was the same thing AC Milan were able to do last week: They compressed their side so tightly to the middle, with only 15 yards of daylight between Madrid's forwards and their centerbacks' offside line, that there was nowhere to pass. (They had 10 defenders in a small area.) At times, Barça would have the ball 20 yards away from goal without enough daylight to get off a shot. They were harmless. When they lost it, the ball would automatically get released down the field and to the sideline, where Ronaldo almost invariably caught up with it, before cutting in and countering against Barcelona's centerbacks. The home team had no answer. They won't have an answer when they play Real Madrid again in four days time, this time at Madrid. And if by some miracle they oust Milan from the Champions League, they likely won't have an answer against Bayern Munich, or PSG, or even Real Madrid again.
After years of chasing Barcelona, their closest rivals—like the rest of the continent—have finally caught up to Spanish giants. Messi is still the greatest player in the world, but Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring almost every time he suits up against Barça. Their best hope, it seems, is that rumors of Ronaldo's return to Manchester United pan out. His departure would weaken Madrid (and La Liga as well), and effectively extend Barcelona's reign. But what happens when Real Madrid sign someone like Tottenham superstar Gareth Bale? What then?