Their hope lasted two minutes and nineteen seconds. Just when Barcelona thought there was a chance they might rescue the La Liga title, just as this stadium erupted into noise, just as the faith that had deserted them flooded back, Cristiano Ronaldo tore it all out of their hands again. Alexis Sánchez had given Barcelona a goal and a lifeline with an equaliser midway through the second half, levelling the scores after Sami Khedira had put Madrid ahead in the first half. But 139 seconds later Ronaldo brilliantly stepped around Víctor Valdés to make the return of the title from the Camp Nou to the Bernabéu all but certain.
Pep Guardiola had insisted before this latest clásico that the equation was simple: lose or draw and Real Madrid would be league champions. The trophy is now on its way from Catalonia to Castille. Seven points separate these sides with only four matches remaining. There could yet be a final showdown should they both make it to the Champions League final in Munich, but Madrid were the victors here. Madrid and José Mourinho: this should be the Special One's seventh league title, spread across four different countries.
Madrid's 2-1 win almost certainly puts an end to the Barcelona's title pursuit. Trailing by 10 points only a few weeks ago, Barça, had cut the lead to four. This was the game, they said, in which it would be down to one. If that was presumptuous, there was logic to it: under Mourinho Madrid had won only one of 10 clásicos.
It was always the Catalans who were on the edge of the abyss and in the end they fell into it here. When, momentarily, it looked like they might not, Ronaldo pushed them over the edge with his 42nd goal of the season. Few deserve the title like he does. Always the first outlet, invariably the source of greatest danger, Ronaldo was involved in Madrid's opener after 15 minutes. Until then, Barcelona had struggled to reach their front three. Cristian Tello, given his third start of the season out on the left touchline, was isolated. Madrid's wide men were too, but they lay in wait for the quick ball to release them. Soon, it came. Ronaldo dashed ahead of Sergio Busquets on the left and cut across him, with space opening up ahead and the Barcelona midfielder immediately behind. The Portuguese went down and from the swinging free-kick came a deflected Angel di María shot. From the resulting corner came a goal.
Valdés misjudged the flight of the corner, which was deep towards the far post. Pepe leapt above Adriano and headed down. Valdés, by then backtracking, made the save but the ball dropped a couple of yards out. Carles Puyol got his body between the ball and the goalline, apparently trying to block Madrid's path to it rather than clearing it himself, and Khedira reached round to challenge him, knocking it in. This was the first time that Madrid had scored here in the league since late 2007. It was also Madrid's 108th league goal of the season – a new record.
Barcelona's difficulties multiplied, so did the number of times they gave the ball away. Andrés Iniesta in particular looked out of place and off the pace. Madrid put pressure on up to a point and then waited, stepping out opportunely to seek the offside. Meanwhile, Xabi Alonso was always close to Lionel Messi. And if Madrid saw little of the ball, Barcelona did little with it. Rarely did they find the wide men. Twice Tello got the ball and attacked before the break, engaging Alvaro Arbeloa in straight sprints. The Madrid defender was his equal on both occasions. Inside, Barcelona rarely found the space to deliver a telling pass.
Messi did spring the trap, leaving Xavi Hernández one on one with Iker Casillas in the 26th minute, but he wasted the chance. Barcelona appeared impotent; when Madrid counter-attacked, Barcelona appeared vulnerable. As if to prove that point, Ronaldo ran the ball into the net seven minutes into the second half. He was offside. But only just.
The two best chances of the opening minutes of the second period fell to Tello. First he dashed in from the left but scuffed his shot from Iniesta's pass. Then, running into the same area and supplied by Thiago, he blasted the ball over from eight yards out. Barcelona were starting to exert pressure; Madrid were limited to resisting. The problem for Barcelona was the pressure exerted on them by the clock. It ticked down, taking their title chances with it. It showed 20 minutes left when they got the breakthrough. Now there was time. Faith too. Suddenly, the noise was deafening; they were going to do it after all.
Messi dashed through and found Iniesta, whose back heel reached Tello. In much the same position from which he had wasted two earlier chances, he concentrated on keeping the ball on target. Casillas saved, the ball fell to Adriano, Casillas saved again and Sánchez reached out to bundle the ball over the line. The Chilean had barely been on the pitch two minutes, having replaced Xavi. The belief, though, would last about as long. Mesut Ozil played the pass. And in a flash, Ronaldo was there, delivering the league to Madrid four years on.