By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
There was no post-match rant from Jose Mourinho, no conspiracy theories, no blaming of officials. Just realism. Real Madrid had failed to take their chances, he acknowledged, while Barcelona had been allowed to stroke the ball around at will in the second half. "The dressing room is sad but relaxed," the Portuguese pondered. "But if we beat Sevilla [in our game in hand over Barca] we will be leaders at Christmas."
It was a positive spin on a negative night for Madrid and Mourinho. And it had all started so, so well for the home side as Victor Valdes' mistake let in the locals and Karim Benzema opened the scoring after 22 seconds. Boosted by their 15-game winning streak and three-point lead over Barca - and a game in hand - coming into this fixture, Madrid had believed in a first Liga win over their fiercest foes since May of 2008.
And it looked to be on as the Frenchman lashed home a volley after Mesut Ozil's shot had been deflected into his path by Carles Puyol. Barca looked rattled, Valdes appeared anxious every time he had the ball at his feet, and Madrid seemed set to take advantage.
Minutes later, Lionel Messi stole the ball from Sergio Ramos at the other end and danced past several men in white, but the Argentine was denied by an immaculate intervention from Iker Casillas, the Madrid captain diving low to his right to push the 24-year-old's drive just around the post.
Such saves can win matches, but a one-goal lead seemed slender in what was an open and exciting encounter. Yes, Madrid needed an inspirational Iker, but they also required a clinical Cristiano Ronaldo to rise to the occasion, too. Crucially, however, he couldn't.
Something amiss | Ronaldo squandered two clear-cut chancesThe world's most expensive player pushed back Barca's Dani Alves on the left, but was stopped in his tracks on numerous occasions by a providential Puyol. And when he did find spaces in the Barca back line, the Portuguese was unable to make them count. Cutting inside onto his right foot, he hit a wild effort which sailed harmessly wide from the edge of the box after 24 minutes - and with Angel Di Maria all alone and umarked to his right. Later, he would fail to hit the target again - this time with a simple header.
Both misses were key. Had the first been converted, Madrid would have gone into a 2-0 lead. But as it was, Barca levelled five minutes later through the impressive Alexis Sanchez, who ran onto a pass from Messi and kept his cool to hold off challenges from Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, before slotting a low shot into Casillas' bottom-right corner.
And after that, Madrid never really looked the same side again. Mourinho's men continued to press, to hustle and harry in midfield, with Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra willing workers in a high-tempo display from the home side. But Barca had grown in confidence and began to enjoy more of the possession as the half-time whistle approached.
|We lost the game but we have the same number of points as them. We started well and in my opinion we reacted well and had a good chance to make it 2-2. Cristiano usually scores those
- Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho
The Catalans edged in front with more than an element of good fortune, Marcelo inadvertently deflected Xavi's shot past Casillas, via the post, to hand Barca the lead. And after Cristiano's miss with a free header at the other end, Dani Alves raced down the right and directed a pinpoint cross onto the head of Cesc Fabregas to make it 3-1. Game over.
In fact, it could have been more for the Catalans after that, as Madrid were run ragged by Messi, Alexis and Andres Iniesta - all impressive on the night.
Some Madrid fans may argue that Messi should have been sent off for a foul on Xabi Alonso when he had already been booked, but not even Mourinho was prepared to call that one after the match.
The Portuguese's plan to break Barca, hitting them hard with a high-tempo and high-intensity performance of pace and pressing, had not been a poor ploy. But such a style is virtually impossible to maintain for 90 minutes due to the physical and mental strain it incurs on the players. And for it to work, chances must be taken.
|Madrid won't sink, it won't affect them. I am delighted with the game that we played, but there are still a lot of things I think we can improve on
- Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola
After the game, Mourinho spoke of Barca's 'psychological superiority' as the Catalans came from behind to make it 2-1. But had Madrid gone 2-0 up through Cristiano, it may well have been a different match.
That is impossible to say, but Barca ended the game the stronger both mentally and physically, with Madrid well beaten in the end.
Mourinho's men still have a game in hand, of course, and their form prior to this match suggested they can claim the league title. They still can. But to win it by picking up points elsewhere and failing to beat Barca would surely seem a somewhat hollow triumph. And the Catalans are likely to stand in their way in the Champions League latter stages again this season, too.
He has done it once with Inter and he did it in the final of the Copa del Rey last term as well, but with the Catalans closing in on perfection and Pep Guardiola constantly claiming they can do even better, catching them will not get any easier. It remains Mourinho's biggest challenge.
Follow Ben Hayward on