It was not supposed to be this way. These two unstoppable beasts were supposed to stride towards each other, floor shaking with every thumping step, swatting others out the way until they came head to head at the Camp Nou for the ultimate showdown. For Real Madrid, this was an opportunity; with a four-point lead at the top, it was a chance to defeat and destroy Barcelona, taking the title and proving themselves the most powerful force around. Instead, they both turn up defeated.
They always knew that was possible. Bayern Munich are Real's other enemy, and El Clásico is still a colossal clash, the biggest in world football, but this was the week that seemed set to enthrone them. It is only seven days since Real become the equal highest scoring team in Spanish football history; Karim Benzema's goal against Sporting Gijón was his team's third of the match, the goal that restored their lead at the top of the table to seven points. It was also Real's 107th league goal. José Mourinho's team had matched the record with five matches to spare.
Last season Real had come close, scoring 102, but there was something a little false about the stat. It owed much to a late-season flurry, scoring six, two, six, four, three and eight in their final six matches following a 1-1 draw with Barcelona, which had effectively confirmed the Catalans as league champions and after which Alfredo Di Stefáno described Madrid as a team "without personality", playing like "mice".
There is nothing false about this total. Madrid have equalled John Toshack's Real Madrid of 1989-90, the last waltz from a legendary, artistic team: the Emilio Butragueño-led Quinta del Buitre, which clinched five consecutive league championships. The Clásico will go a long way to deciding if Real can prevent Pep Guardiola's team reaching a fourth successive title.
That 89-90 season, Hugo Sánchez equalled Telmo Zarra's 1950-51 record, scoring 38 goals – every one with a single touch. Cristiano Ronaldo broke Sánchez's record last season with 39. Now he's on 41. He has 53 in 49 games in all competitions, 139 in 137 since leaving Manchester United. Forty-one is the same figure as Lionel Messi. He has 63 in 53 games; Messi gets a goal every 72 minutes, Ronaldo every 81. They have assists, too, and lots of them: Messi is on 25, Ronaldo 14.
One week, Messi leads in the Pichichi charts, the next it is Ronaldo. The Clásico is a confrontation of a thousand subplots; Messi v Ronaldo, players who define their teams, is the most compelling of them. At times, you can almost picture the two of them on the phone before the weekend's games, deciding on the number of goals they will get. They are in cahoots, having a giggle at all our expense, and to our joy. How many this week, Cris? Two, Leo? OK then.
When it comes to goals in this fixture, the balance has tipped the way of the Madrid man once accused of not being able to perform against the Catalans – he missed a penalty for Manchester United in Barcelona. He has now scored in the past three Clásicos; Messi has not scored in any of them. Yet Messi has six in six confrontations with Real at the Camp Nou and has scored more against Iker Casillas than any other goalkeeper.
It is not just about Messi's goals, though. And it is not just about Ronaldo. He is not alone in the Madrid team. Benzema has 18 in the league. Gonzalo Higuaín has 21. They are the most effective "trident" in history, ahead of Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, who led Barcelona's 6-2 win at Madrid in 2008-09, even though they rarely play together. Real's goal difference is +78, Barcelona's is +72. In Europe, Madrid have scored 33, level with Barcelona. In the league, they average 3.2 per game. As the assistant coach Aitor Karanka put it: "For those who say Mourinho is defensive, those aren't bad stats."
Accusations of defensiveness linger, and in Spain, where the aesthetic is often as prized as the effective, "accusation" is the word. But the figures make a powerful case. It is easy to empathise with Mourinho: 107 goals and you're still calling us defensive?
At specific moments Mourinho has sought protection, though. Fábio Coentrão tends to replace the attacking full-back Marcelo in key games. Mourinho also opted for a trivote – a three-man defensive midfield and a word laced with negative overtones – in Valencia, Málaga and Villarreal. He has famously done the same against Barcelona, with Pepe as one of the three, a decision some met as if it was a moral aberration.
One of the big questions being posed is: will he do the same now? Will the four-point lead give him a cushion that allows him to attack Barcelona knowing that Madrid will still be top no matter what, or will it encourage him to protect what he holds? After all, a draw will almost certainly make Real champions. They have let a 10-point lead slip but few can see them dropping points twice in the final four games. If Mourinho does seek an extra body in there he may have to find another man for the role. Lassana Diarra, the normal addition to Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, has slipped not just from the team since the draw at Villarreal but from the squad.
The occasional caution suggests a recognition of the different levels of opposition in Spain and beyond. Yet Mourinho has tried many approaches against Barcelona. The results have been largely the same – they have won one in 10 – but the sensations have been different. The desire to protect is understandable, but Barcelona have rarely been less comfortable than when Real have attacked them, applying intense pressure and applying it high: the 2-2 Copa del Rey draw at the Camp Nou was one of those rare occasions where the sensation was that the visitors were the better side. Mourinho's critics suggested that he only did so because, trailing from the first leg, he had no choice.
Mostly, Mourinho's team has been insatiable this season. No one rains in shots like they do: Real have taken 645 this season. The second highest, Barcelona, are almost 100 behind. They do not play the same technical game as Barcelona and their possession stats are lower; 58% against 67% in the Champions League before last week's semi-final first-leg ties; 500 passes per game against 666 in La Liga. But the offensive intent is there.
There is a relentlessness about them that is partly born of last season, of the realisation that in Spain draws are the new defeats. Real failed to win the 2010-11 title because of their 5-0 loss to Barcelona, sure, but also because of 0-0 draws with Mallorca, Levante and Deportivo and 1-0 defeats against Osasuna and Sporting Gijón. Five games against clubs they should destroy, whose budget they dwarf; five games without scoring. The lesson was reinforced in weeks three and four of this season when they were beaten 1-0 by Levante and drew 0-0 in Santander.
The determination not to repeat that mistake has contributed to the manner in which they have steamrollered teams and contributed to their goals tally. Since Santander, they have failed to scored once: the 0-0 draw with Valencia, in which they took 33 shots. The previous two games they had won 5-1, in part a reaction to the timely reminder received the week before when Real scored once against Málaga and Villarreal, both times conceding late equalisers from free-kicks. It was a wake-up call for a team that had found that even when they played badly they still had sufficient pegada to win.
Pegada means punch. While Barcelona are technically precise stylists, dancing around, jabbing you into submission, Real beat you to a pulp. And when they do not, when their opponent may even be winning on points, they have an incredible capacity to land the knockout blow. It can come out of nowhere and it can come from anywhere, making them more dangerous. As one La Liga coach explains, "Barcelona make you feel worse than Madrid, more inferior. You never touch the ball, you just drop ever deeper and protect yourself. Against Madrid, you feel like you're in the game, you get the ball, you play, you attack … and that is when they score."
Less possession sometimes means more effective possession. The speed of Real's transitions is devastating. "Counterattack" is treated like a dirty phrase in Spain but Real execute it with such pace and precision that it is a thing of breathtaking beauty. Rarely does the opposition look more vulnerable than when they have a corner. Another coach admits to not sending defenders forward for them. It is not worth the risk. Real, on the other hand, do. From set plays in the air, Sergio Ramos might be the most dangerous player in Spain. Mesut Ozil, Alonso and Ángel Di María provide accurate deliveries. Only two sides have scored more from dead balls than Real. No one has had more penalties.
If that makes Real sound like a purely counterattacking side, scoring on the break and from free kicks and corners, think again. They may well opt to be so against Barcelona but, on average, they still have more than 60% of the ball and they have scored more goals from team moves than anyone else – including Barcelona. There is just so much variety to Real's game: speed and power, technique, athleticism and skill. They can go outside or inside, play long or play short. They are supremely well organised, too, fit and fast.
Stripped down to the basics, there is just so much talent. There's never been a more expensive team. Their front three last Saturday was Ozil, Higuaín and Ronaldo. Cost: €126m. The players on the bench cost €174m and they have been used well: more subs have scored for Madrid than anyone else.
Nuri Sahin was the Bundesliga's best player last season; last Saturday he started his first league game in Spain. Real hadn't needed him until now. It ended with Madrid scoring three. Three more. One hundred and seven in total. No one has ever scored more. But will it be enough?