There can hardly have been any doubt about the greatness of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, but beating Real Madrid 5-0 confirmed its place in the pantheon. Perhaps the score line didn't quite have the impact of the 6-2 victory in the Bernabeu the season before last, but as a performance this was at least the equal of that game, not least because this was against Jose Mourinho's Madrid and Mourinho's teams simply do not get hammered; no side he has managed has ever lost by a four-goal margin, never mind five.
And this was a hammering; it could have been far more than 5-0.
Ricardo Carvalho twice could have been sent off before Sergio Ramos finally was, Barca by no means took all its chances, and for much of the second half Barca was content to pass the ball around and soak up the oles of the crowd. It had almost three-quarters of possession, but unlike against Mourinho's Internazionale in the Champions League semifinal last season when it had 84 percent, it looked persistently dangerous.
Perhaps Mourinho was influenced by memories of that semifinal, for Madrid seemed happy enough to allow Barca possession as though it believed holding its shape, as Inter had, would be enough. In the first quarter of the game, there was an odd deference about Madrid, barely a tackle made, although that soon changed as tempers began to fray. Inter held out; Madrid never looked like doing so.
In part, that is down to personnel. Last season, Inter began with Cristian Chivu, more usually a fullback, on the left side of the 4-2-3-1, and after Thiago Motta had been sent off, Samue Eto'o played almost as an auxiliary right-back. Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria are not the sort of players, either by ability or inclination, to offer that sort of defensive support, and the result was that Barcelona's fullbacks, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal, constantly stormed past them to become an extra man in midfield.
Likewise, with Lassana Diarra omitted, and Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira starting as the holding midfield duo, Madrid lacked a central ball-winner to unsettle Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Diarra's arrival at halftime in place of the ineffective Mesut Ozil was almost an admission from Mourinho that he'd got it wrong.
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That's why Madrid was not as effective at stifling Barca as Inter had been, but this was a different, cannier, Barca. Its front three is always fluid, but here there seemed a conscious policy of attempting to drag Madrid's two center backs, Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho, apart and then exploit the gap with low through-balls from deep. In a sense that is natural function of Messi's positioning. His nominal role may have been on the right, but he spent much of the game dropping deep into central areas. That allowed Pedro to switch to the right and Villa to pull left, stretching the back four across the full width of the pitch.
In that first 20 minutes, Villa twice almost exploited that space only to drift fractionally offside, and twice only last-gasp stretching blocks prevented the ball finding runners. An awareness of that issue made Madrid tentative, and when that happened, the basics went.
It is rarely one haymaker that ends a fight; rather it is a repeated series of blows that dazes an opponent. Just how badly Madrid was wobbling was apparent after 10 minutes, the defense en masse following Messi to the left, opening space for Iniesta to pick out Xavi's run.
He may have been fortunate the ball bounced up for him, but his finish was deft and intuitive: 1-0, and Madrid already looked exhausted.
Eight minutes later came the second. Barcelona mesmerized Madrid with a move of 21 passes, waiting and waiting for an opening, which came as Villa, simply by holding his position, found space in the left as Madrid was dragged the other way. Xavi picked him out, he cut into the box, and although his cross was half-blocked, Pedro stabbed in. This was brilliant, intuitive football. It wasn't just that the technique and touch were superb, but the movement and understanding: eight of the starting 11 had come through Barca's academy and perhaps such a style is only possible among players who have grown up together with a shared philosophy.
It had been billed as Cristiano Ronaldo against Messi, but Ronaldo was barely involved. To an extent that was not his fault, for his side scarcely had the ball, but when he did feature he cut a pitiable, petulant figure. His main involvement was to shove Pep Guardiola, which at least irritated Barca enough to check its flow for the final quarter-hour of the first half.
It returned, though, at halftime. Diarra's involvement as Madrid switched to 4-3-3 was negligible, undermined by a shambolic offside trap that seemed to reflect Madrid's state of mind. Again the runners created space and Villa and Xavi had already had efforts blocked in the second half when, after 55 minutes, Villa ran on to a Messi pass to sweep in the third.
With Messi in this sort of form, attempting any sort of offside trap becomes all but impossible because the weighting of his passing is so good that he is able to place the ball into the smallest of spaces. He had plenty of room to lay in Villa for the fourth, but the pass was so finely calibrated that Villa didn't have to break stride before hitting a first-time finish. After that, the sense was Barcelona could have scored almost as many more as it wanted, but preferred to assert its mastery by making Madrid chase the ball, settling for just one more, Bojan crossing for Jeffren to score.
This was an indelible night, one that, whatever happens in the rest of the season, will echo through football history. Ronald Koeman, the sweeper in Barcelona's dream team that, under Johan Cruyff's leadership won four straight Liga titles and a European Cup, admitted that Guardiola's side has "a little more" than the side in which he played; praise in Catalonia comes no higher than that.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.