Coming into Saturday, it had been 30 matches in all competitions since the final score of a Barcelona-Real Madrid match was 0-0. For La Liga matches at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, it had been 30 seasons since these two Spanish giants played each other to a goal-less draw. Goals were always coming in Saturday's El Clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. It was just a matter of which side would score them.
Although it took nearly an hour of match time to do so, Barcelona was the side to find the goals, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's followed La Liga this season. The Blaugrana handed Real Madrid a 3-0 home loss, extending their lead atop the La Liga table to nine points over Atletico Madrid and a whopping 14 points over Real Madrid.
It's an astounding result in context of where these teams were just four months ago. In August, coming off a season in which it won La Liga, as well as a Champions League title, Real Madrid defeated Barcelona 5-1 over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup. Barcelona, meanwhile, had just sold Neymar while bringing in a slew of players who underwhelmed fans. The Super Cup loss was even enough for Barcelona defender Gerard Pique to admit he felt "inferior" to Real Madrid for the first time in years.
Since that moment, "inferior" is the last word you would use to compare Barcelona to Real Madrid. The Blaugrana are undefeated in La Liga and won their UEFA Champions League group without breaking a sweat. Real Madrid has struggled to score in La Liga -- Cristiano Ronaldo has only four goals -- and struggled on its way to a second-place finish in its Champions League group. A showdown with PSG in the UCL Round of 16 could lead to an early exit for the Blancos, which would leave them empty-handed in the two competitions they value most. In the four months since the Super Cup, the power dynamic of El Clásico has reversed, and that was clear in the match Saturday -- at least in the second half.
The first half went off as if this reversal never occurred. Madrid took the game to Barcelona, which breathlessly chased the ball, unable to assert possession the way you think of Barcelona asserting possession. But even though Madrid was the sharper team, it was unable to find a finishing edge, and the sides went into the dressing room at 0-0.
The second half was a completely different match. Whether it received a rousing halftime speech from manager Ernesto Valverde or was simply going with a rope-a-dope strategy, Barcelona out-energized Madrid in the second half. In the 54th minute, it notched its first goal off the boot of Luis Suarez on a beautiful counter-attack. Playing from the back, Barcelona caught Madrid flat-footed, and an exceptional interchange between Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto and Suarez at the other end of the pitch gave Barcelona a 1-0 lead.
From that moment, the game was in Barcelona's hands, and it killed the match, as well as Madrid's fading title hopes, 10 minutes later.
Another counter-attack led to a scramble in the box when Madrid keeper Keylor Navas came off his line. Barcelona started pelting shots at goal as Madrid defenders dived left and right to stop any shot from crossing the line. One shot finally did go in, but it went in nanoseconds after the official called a penalty on Casemiro for a blatant handball and handed the Brazilian a red card. Lionel Messi would now have to earn back that goal from the penalty spot.
Messi buried the spot kick to extend his La Liga-leading tally to 15 and the Barcelona lead to 2-0. It was his 25th El Clásico goal, the most all-time.
With 10 men against the high-flying Barcelona attack, Real Madrid never mounted any significant challenges to Barcelona's supremacy, and Aleix Vidal extended the lead to 3-0 with help from a Messi assist in stoppage time.
One of the most astonishing things about the match was how Barcelona won. In the first half, Barca was happy to sit back, absorb pressure and let Madrid wear itself out. In the second half, each goal was created in some way or another by a counter-attack. This is the new state of things under Valverde. He's shifted Barcelona from a club that relies purely on tiki-taka passing to hold possession and smother opponents into a club that applies those same tiki-taka principles to a counter-attacking style.
Suarez's opening goal is a prime example. Those two finals passes are vintage Barcelona interplay. But in years past, Barcelona would never have burst out of the back the way it did to start that counter. The marriage of a counter-attacking philosophy with Barcelona passing principles has modernized and rejuvenated a Barcelona squad that was on the verge of stagnation. Now we're back to the good old days of Barcelona dominance, if only with a slight twist.
* * *
Cy Brown writes about football, golf, soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.