Two down, one to go. Barcelona have been beaten away and at home. Next up in Real Madrid's season-defining eight-day week, the most important meeting of them all: Manchester United at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos climbed to head in the winning goal from a Luka Modric corner to clinch a 2-1 victory after the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo turned what was at risk of becoming a nonevent into something approaching a clásico. The Portuguese turned everything on its head. If he didn't actually score, this time it did not matter; if everyone else seemed to have settled for a draw, his ambition remains undiminished.
In the final minute, Barcelona surrounded the referee, Miguel Pérez Lasa, to demand a penalty after Ramos appeared to trip Adriano, but he was not for turning. A draw escaped them to end a dreadful fortnight with defeats by Milan and twice by Madrid. As for Madrid, the threat has become promise. United are on the horizon – it is a journey they now look forward to.
The significance of this game lay more in the emotional than the practical: how much of an impact would this game have upon bigger clashes that await? The answer could be seen at the final whistle: Barcelona project fragility, Madrid strength and optimism. Barcelona came into it with a 16-point lead over Real Madrid; Real Madrid came into it having won at the Camp Nou to reach the final of the Copa del Rey, shifting the balance of power. "Goodbye to the Cup, goodbye!" sang the Madrid fans.
Of equal significance was that Manchester United await Madrid on Tuesday while Milan visit Barcelona the following week. Even the kick-off time reflected a sense of attention lying elsewhere: the 4pm Saturday slot, the earliest clásico in memory, was chosen to give Madrid as much time to recover as possible. And when the two teams came out, there was something a little still about the atmosphere, as the sun poured in over the west stand.
José Mourinho still chose to protect his most important players: Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Gonzalo Higuaín started on the bench, Xabi Alonso did not even make it that far. Pepe's inclusion in midfield looked much like a test for Old Trafford, while Michael Essien's inclusion at right-back with Ramos in the middle suggests that Alvaro Arbeloa, rather than Ramos, will start on the right against United. Or perhaps that's what Mourinho wants Alex Ferguson to think. Up front were Kaká, Alvaro Morata and Karim Benzema.
With more time before the second leg against Milan and with the need to heal the wounds of Wednesday night, Barcelona chose a side far closer to the strongest available. Xavi is injured and may not make it to the Milan game, while Cesc Fábregas and Carles Puyol were on the bench. Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and David Villa all started. This was still a clásico, the greatest rivalry in world football. Yet it was the supposedly weaker team that took the lead.
Ramos stepped ahead of Messi to cut out Thiago Alcântara's pass and slotted the ball to Morata on the left wing. He played the ball across to the far post where Benzema was waiting to nudge the ball in from a few yards. This was the 13th consecutive game in which Barcelona have conceded – they have a problem. There was something flat about them, but bit by bit they began to take control of the ball.
Madrid's fans were whistling their disapproval of a long passage of Barcelona possession when Dani Alves – who was subjected to racist abuse from the stands – saw space beyond the Madrid defence and produced a clever through ball. Messi dashed on to it, cut back away from Ramos and struck it under Diego López for his 39th goal of the season. This was the 16th consecutive league game in which he had scored and brought him level with Alfredo Di Stéfano as the all-time top scorer in clásicos with 18.
Barcelona now were happy to play, Messi dropping deep to receive and pass. There was little urgency; there was frustration from Madrid's supporters. Barcelona seemed happy to have the ball, Madrid seemed happy to let them. But pass after pass led to little. The best opportunity fell to Messi just after the half-hour when Villa pulled the ball back to him on the edge of the area. But his shot, taken right-footed, was weak, an easy catch for López. At the other end, Modric curled to the back post, where Morata headed into the side-netting. And that, largely, was that.
Barcelona were now happy to keep the ball, Madrid seemed happy to let them. When Ronaldo was sent out to warn up at the start of the second half, the crowd roared in the hope he could shake this game out of its stupor. Some excitement, at last. As the crowd waited, Messi and Alves and Messi and Villa had combined to create half-chances for Barcelona.
Ronaldo was introduced just before the hour and, running at Gerard Piqué, immediately drew a free-kick near the right edge of the area and a yellow card for the defender.
Soon after, he was thumping a free kick goalwards, pushed away by Víctor Valdés. Then he was running down the left and shooting into the side-netting. This was a different Madrid and a different game: there was tension and a bit of edge at last, a sense of threat that seemed to affect Barcelona – nerves crept in, the passing was less assured, that comfort had gone. As for Madrid, it was as if they had called their big brother into a playground dispute. They could not lose now.
They could even win. Morata was sent clean through by Pepe's clever pass, but Valdés made the save. Ronaldo headed over from Modric's free-kick. And Ramos headed in the winner. There was even time for Ronaldo to hit the bar and bring a save out of Valdés with two late free-kicks. He had changed this game; he had made it a game.