On Sunday night Atletico Madrid did their bitter city rivals a huge favour by inflicting Barcelona's first league defeat of the season, allowing Real to narrow the gap at the top of La Liga to just two points.
Something did not seem right from the start. On the eve of the game, Pep Guardiola, Barca's vibrantly effusive and confident coach claimed, "Whatever happens we will still be leaders"- almost preparing his sides fans for defeat ahead of their visit to the Calderon, where they had won just once in the seven previous league meetings - losing three of the previous four.
Last March saw the teams contest the best game of the season - the only time Barca lost out when beautiful football flourished. Twice they led, 2-0 and 3-2, but Sergio Aguero pinched an 89th-minute winner in a game that had disallowed goals, penalties, controversy and wonder goals.
When Diego Forlan raced through on Sunday night to put Atletic one up in the ninth minute, it looked like we were set another classic. As it was, Barca were not good enough last night to play their part in such a game.
Bereft of Rafael Marquez, Eric Abidal, Dmitri Chygrynsky, Yaya Toure and, perhaps most crucially, Gerard Pique and Dani Alves, Barca were without a recognized ball-player. With Jeffren shoe-horned into full-back, Barca abandoned their all-conquering pass and move, one-two touch football, going longer, in all likelihood than any other time under Guardiola. And it didn't work.
To make matters worse for Barca, already depleted in defence, they lost Seydou Keita after five minutes with a knee injury that will keep him out for a month, and then Xavi, who is expected to be out for at least a fortnight. It was a meek way for Barca to surrender their unbeaten record - incredibly Forlan's goal was the first time that Barca had trailed in a match at any stage in a game in La Liga this season - 1,899 minutes – an all-time league record.
Barca's play was fragmented without that usual link between defence and midfield. Xavi and Andres Iniesta, forever the Barca orchestrators, were left agitated in midfield as Atleti’s high-line and the lack of movement in-behind left the midfield condensed and congested. A lack of width either side further frustrated Barca’s ball players who failed to forge the tempo to the tune that has bought them so much success since Guardiola moved up from coaching the ‘B’ side in June 2008.
Simao hit a stunning free-kick mid-way through the first-half and despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic hitting a quick reply, his first league goal in two months, Barca rarely threatened to draw level with Lionel Messi , in particular, having a disappointing night. For much of the second half Barca looked disinterested, disorganised and even resigned to defeat. How they bounce back from this defeat will be crucial - their rivals Real are gathering momentum in their quest for the title.
Los Blancos made hard work of victory at bottom of the table Xerez on Saturday night - only the second time that Real had the chance to put pressure on Barca by playing first and reducing the deficit at the top since the Catalans themselves won at Xerez on December 2. Since then Real have all but once found themselves eight points behind Barca by kick-off.
Xerez, with just 12 goals to their name before Saturday, could have been 3-0 up inside 25 minutes. Instead they spurned several glorious chances that asked nothing of Iker Casillas, making his 500th appearance for Real, at the age of just 28. Sure enough Real found their feet against a side made up of loan deals and free signings (Real's starting line-up weighed in at £234 million) and won the game inside seven second-half minutes with goals from Alvaro Arbeloa and a double-strike from Cristiano Ronaldo, returning from suspension.
The title may now come down to the Classico on April 10. Just two points separate the sides and if Madrid can replicate their flawless form at home throughout the season they have every chance of overhauling Barcelona.
Eleven wins from 11 is also slightly misleading - Real's remaining games at the Bernabeu include Villarreal, Sevilla, Atletico, Barcelona and Valencia.
If they maintain their run through that minefield they perhaps will be worthy winners. Armed with a squad of heavyweights they are now close enough to land the knockout blow - the question remains, can they deliver it?
READ BISH'S BRIEFS EXCLUSIVELY AT FOOTBALL.CO.UK EVERY TUESDAY