Casemiro Real Madrid Getty Images

Clasico humiliation exposes how poor Real Madrid need more than just Mbappe

“Where is Lionel Messi?” chanted Real Madrid fans cheekily outside Santiago Bernabeu, before heading into the Clasico on Sunday with great expectations.

They were still high on their 3-2 comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, mocking their eternal rivals for losing their best-ever player and then knocking Messi out of Europe themselves.

They rode that optimism, though, straight into a sucker punch from Xavi’s slick Barcelona.

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They left wondering where their own talisman Luka Modric was, and if things would have been different if their best player and top goalscorer, Karim Benzema, was fit for the game.

The France striker’s injury set Madrid back, and Carlo Ancelotti deployed Modric at the tip of a diamond midfield, with forwards Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo pulling wide, often leaving the Croatian as a kind of false nine.

It did not suit him, and the home side were surgically sliced open by Barcelona as Madrid’s system failed, with Xavi graduating as a coach at a stomping ground that has proven fruitful for him over the years.

While the Catalan has been building his side up, Real Madrid have been gently softening under the surface, with their slow decline cloaked by some supremely talented individuals.

They may well go on to win La Liga, given they have a nine-point lead on second-place Sevilla with just nine games remaining, but Sunday was not so much of a warning sign for Madrid as the alarms sounding.

Barcelona’s 4-0 Clasico triumph was in the same vein as PSG’s performances against Madrid, at least the first two-and-a-half hours of the Champions League last-16 tie, with no Benzema to salvage the situation in the final 30 minutes.

Vinicius Real Madrid GFX Getty Images

His hat-trick against the Ligue 1 leaders, precipitated by a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and exacerbated by the mental fragility of Mauricio Pochettino's side, pulled the wool over the eyes of many Madrid fans.

The defeat by Chelsea in last season’s Champions League semi-final showed Madrid needed big changes, but that was forgotten beneath the good start under Ancelotti.

“Madrid are a clear favourite for the Clasico,” wrote Tomas Roncero in AS on Sunday morning. “One of the eight best teams from the Champions League is facing one of the eight best from the Europa League.”

True, technically. But the performances both Madrid and Barcelona have put in over the past few weeks have told a vastly different story, one which played out painfully frame by frame before Madridista eyes.

“Clasicos are like Groundhog Day,” added Roncero, with pride coming before a very steep fall. “For four years Madrid have always won them.”

As fans trudged miserably out of the stadium, except for a group of triumphant Barcelona supporters, the mood had changed. “I’m very sorry and I’m very sad,” said Ancelotti, holding himself to account for the defeat. And not unreasonably.

Barcelona lost their icon and best ever player in Messi, but Xavi’s rebuild has been efficient and thorough, while operating on a greatly reduced budget compared to his predecessors.

His team is based on unshakable principles of play, and a system that does not need one star to shoulder the burden.

Eduardo Camavinga Real Madrid GFX Getty Images

By contrast, Real Madrid are an opportunistic side that do not strike on their own terms in big games, but based on mistakes from their opponents. That is what happened against PSG, but they did not stand a chance against Barcelona.

When one of the pillars of their team is missing, in Benzema, misplaced, in Modric, or not performing, as was the case with David Alaba in the Clasico, they struggle.

“We have to talk about the tactics internally,” said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, speaking truthfully and frankly after the game.

“It didn't work, what we did from the start of the game, or in the second half. They had chances. The result could have been much worse."

PSG forward Kylian Mbappe arriving in the summer, which appears close to a done deal, would just be the first step towards creating a reliable, strong Madrid.

Midfielders Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga need to be given more chances to bed themselves in, with Modric, 36, unable to last forever.

Benzema, 34, is also still at his best, but it would not be a surprise if that changed in the near future, given his age.

Right-back Dani Carvajal, 30, has turned into a huge problem for the club, while Lucas Vazquez, a converted right-winger, is not a suitable first choice option in the position. Achraf Hakimi’s sale to Inter in 2020 looks like a grievous error, and Madrid will have to address the mistake in the summer.

In truth, the biggest change they have to make may be on their bench.

Ancelotti was a surprising choice of manager after an underwhelming campaign at Everton and, despite Madrid’s dominance in the league, is starting to prove the initial suspicions right.

He was a safe pair of hands for Florentino Perez to turn to, but now Barcelona are managed by Xavi, becoming sharks again, after the flabby Quique Setien and Ronald Koeman eras, it does not seem so safe.

Madrid need a coach capable of doing battle with Xavi; the Jose Mourinho of 2011 or a Jurgen Klopp to match Barcelona’s potential new Pep Guardiola. Ancelotti has not previously shown much tactical variation, preferring to stick to the 4-3-3, then against Barcelona took an entirely scattergun approach.

Casemiro and Camavinga ended up at centre-back at different points during the game, with the defence completely disorganised.

Gareth Bale was left out of the squad entirely while the lesser-spotted Mariano Diaz was bizarrely thrown on for the second half. It was chaos.

Barcelona mocked Madrid, toying with them on the pitch, while Xavi brought on five substitutes, mainly just so they could also feel part of the party. Eric Garcia taunted Vinicius, sarcastically telling him he would be winning Ballon d’Or next season.

These are words the Barcelona defender might come, even should come to regret, given Vinicius’ huge potential, but only if Madrid take the right decisions this summer. And there are some big ones to take.

Right now, and even if Madrid go on to win La Liga as expected, they are headed in the wrong direction.