When Real Madrid need a saviour, they turn to Sergio Ramos. The captain is already an icon, and his legend keeps getting bigger with time.
The Spaniard was vital for Madrid at both ends of the pitch in their title run-in last season and proved decisive again on Saturday, crucially converting from the penalty spot to put his side back in front in a massive 3-1 victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou.
Los Blancos came into the Clasico on the brink of a full-blown crisis after dismal defeats to Liga minnows Cadiz and a coronavirus-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk, with Spanish media outlets even suggesting Zinedine Zidane could lose his job if his side lost in Catalunya.
Ramos had missed the midweek Champions League loss to Shakhtar through injury, forced to watch on helplessly from the stands as his team's defence was breached three times in 13 first-half minutes – as many goals as they had conceded during the final nine games of the 2019-20 Liga season.
Nobody was, thus, in the least bit surprised that he was willing to play through the pain against Barca, shrugging off last weekend's blow to his knee to start in the Clasico.
“He will be with us, he is our leader,” Zidane enthused ahead of the game. And the Frenchman was grateful for it. His Madrid had never before lost three games in a row, or been beaten at Camp Nou, and Ramos ensured that it stayed that way.
Fede Valverde broke the deadlock after five minutes and as good as his finish was, with the ball driven into the top corner beyond the helpless Neto, it was a shockingly straightforward goal in terms of the build-up.
Sergio Busquets was to blame, completely failing to track Valverde’s run into the box, thus allowing the Uruguayan to reach Karim Benzema’s pass, which had split Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet.
Pique quite rightly turned to remonstrate with Busquets after the goal, with Valverde’s incessant drive and energy badly exposing the latter’s increasing immobility.
Barcelona’s brightest hope pulled them level, with Ansu Fati in the right place at the right time to clinically dispatch Jordi Alba’s cut-back. In doing so, the young Spanish forward, who turns 18 a week from now, became the second-youngest goalscorer in Clasico history.
After a fast and furious opening, the game settled a little after the hosts' equaliser, as the eldest and wisest heads began to exert some control over the pace of the play.
Ramos is a master of the dark arts, of course, and he did well to quell Barca's momentum. At one point, he cleverly used his backside to upend Sergino Dest as the full-back raced into the box – and the Madrid skipper got away with it too.
Dest, though, continued to prove a fine attacking outlet for the hosts. The first American to ever appear in a Clasico was one of the few Barca players to pull their weight, though it was still a surprise that it was left to the new signing, who doesn't speak any Spanish, to conduct the flash interview on the side of the pitch after the game.
Busquets, Pique and Lionel Messi were nowhere to be seen after a defeat that will really sting. Indeed, that Ramos was the game's principal protagonist will no doubt hurt Barca fans, given how often he has tormented them in the past.
The centre-half combined with the likes of Casemiro to ensure that the likes of Pedri and Philippe Coutinho had little impact on the proceedings.
Ramos and Casemiro made sure teenager Pedri had little impact for Barcelona, while Coutinho also came up against Madrid’s brick wall of a skipper, who also showed finesse at the other end.
However, as well as upsetting the home side with his uncompromising defending, he also made a nuisance of himself at the other end of the pitch.
After Lenglet foolishly pulled Ramos’ shirt in the area – it was technically a foul but the defender exaggerated the contact – the 34-year-old picked himself up to take the resultant penalty.
Neto waited a long time, conscious that Ramos has a penchant for the Panenka, but after a staggered run-up, the Madrid defender slid the ball into the goalkeeper's bottom-right corner.
It was Ramos' fifth goal in the Clasico, which saw him equal Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman’s haul in the historic derby.
The Dutchman had more pressing concerns, of course. This was a frustrating day for the former sweeper. Koeman left Busquets on despite the Spaniard having possibly the worst match of his career, and then, after Ramos’s goal, had no clue how to turn things around.
The former Everton manager threw on all the forwards he had at his disposal – Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Trincao, Martin Braithwaite – leaving no structure behind them to create chances or defend.
That meant it was Madrid who had the better chances in the final stages despite Barcelona desperately needing an equaliser, and after Ramos had been denied a second goal by Neto, Luka Modric danced his way through the Barca defence to gleefully fire home the visitors' third goal.
The look on Messi's face at that stage spoke volumes. The Argentine has now gone over 900 days without scoring against Madrid and only once came close here, skinning Ramos in the first half before failing to beat Thibaut Courtois at his near post.
However, while Ramos may have lost that individual battle, Madrid's greatest soldier, their captain, leader and Clasico legend, once again ensured that Zidane's side won the war.