Saturday's was a night of firsts at the Santiago Bernabeu.
For instance, it was the first time ever that a vast majority of Real Madrid supporters showed the feared white handkerchiefs -- a sign of protest when they believe the team's performance is unacceptable -- at halftime, when they usually have the respectful habit of waiting until the final whistle to do so.
In a related topic, it was also the first time that the club's anthem was played at the end of the match at the loudest volume the PA system could offer, so that it hid the predictable and overwhelming boos from the crowd toward players, coach and of course president. The crowd booed anyway. Most fans had stayed until the end only to do just that.
And it was also the first time that Marcelo, one of Real Madrid's skippers this season and a nice bloke off the pitch, lost his temper while talking to the press, calling a journalist "dumb" in a clear display of the dire situation the whole club is undergoing.
The most lopsided clasico since Barcelona's 5-0 win in November 2010 has generated the biggest institutional crisis Real Madrid have faced in a long time. Fittingly so, the match's narrative was one of sticking to your principles (Barcelona's coach Luis Enrique) versus betraying them (Real Madrid's Rafael Benitez).
During the past eight weeks, the Azulgrana had developed a way of playing without their biggest star, Lionel Messi. Losing a player of such talent demands quite an effort to build new routines, especially in the offensive side of things. Barcelona had managed to achieve just that through the more frequent involvement of Sergi Roberto and Andres Iniesta in their passing game.
Luis Enrique could have risked Messi's comeback as a starter but decided to trust the players that had covered for their icon, having won four more points that their archrivals Real Madrid since the Argentinean went down. The metamorphosed Sergi Roberto, a laughingstock until not that long ago, represented this evolution better than any other member of the Barcelona squad, and thus he started the match.
Challenged by a plague of injuries since the season started, Benitez had built something similar with Real Madrid. He trusted theoretical backups, such as Casemiro and younger players like Lucas Vazquez and Jese Rodriguez, to compensate for the absences of some of the big names, like Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, for instance.
The newcomers' physicality and their will to prove their worth allowed Rafa to develop an intense press on the opponent's half of the pitch -- a tool that generated a remarkable number of scoring chances for Real Madrid and kept their own goal reasonably quiet.
His decision-making for the clasico's lineup could not have been more different than Luis Enrique's. Some say he gave in to the players' request to play more offensively, while others believe that he wanted to please the club's management. The fact is that Benitez left Casemiro on the bench after eight consecutive starts and decided to field a team with the full BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) instead. The trio has never been too adept at defending, and even less so when two of its members were painfully far from their best shape.
Not surprisingly, the press up front disappeared. Additionally, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric looked like orphans without Casemiro, and left their back four exposed way too often. Barcelona's midfield moved around the pitch with and without the ball as they pleased, taking advantage of the huge amount of time to start plays, as well as of the oceans of space which Sergi Roberto and Iniesta enjoyed to find Neymar and Luis Suarez in scoring positions.
On top of their midfield superiority, this Messi-less Barcelona side do something with more dedication than the one with Messi as a starter: The intensity of their press up front goes up a notch. Real Madrid not only found themselves chasing shadows without the ball, but also could not keep it for long once they recovered it.
If Real Madrid's starting lineup represented a betrayal of Benitez's work over the last couple of months, the fact that he did not react to what was happening on the pitch is even harder to understand. He remained oblivious to the black hole in his team's midfield up to the 55th minute, when, already 3-0 down, he decided to bring Isco in to replace a subdued James Rodriguez, a player who had just arrived from Colombia after listening to his coach say that he was far from his best shape.
That substitution obviously did not solve matters, first because Isco is hardly a defensive midfielder or a physically gifted player to take control over the middle of the park, but especially because the diminutive Spaniard joined the match wanting to prove a point -- and when he saw that not much could be done, he disgraced himself with a vicious kick to Neymar that earned him a red card. It was a fitting end for a terrible match for the whole team.
The side's disheartening performance, coupled by the unprecedented series of boos toward the presidential suite during the entirety of the match and the final "panolada" (the white handkerchief treatment) led Florentino Perez to speak to the press on Monday evening.
Besides his proclaimed "full support" of Benitez, a statement that has resulted in a couple of casualties in the past -- namely Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti -- Perez shocked many with his analysis of the situation: The team started to "deteriorate" last January -- with Ancelotti as a coach -- and Benitez was brought in to put an end to it, but he needs more time.
The president, however, didn't bother to explain why the coach decided to start Ancelotti's favourite lineup for the biggest match of the season (plus Keylor Navas and Danilo), instead of building on the players in better shape -- or less deteriorated, using the president's lingo. Perez's accusations of a media campaign against him conveniently forget that the boos from the crowd were absolutely spontaneous, with no media involvement, and are obviously a way to distract the attention now that the spotlight, without a sports director to blame, is on him.
The fact that some journalists, together with supporters and socios, now ask for Perez's job, after a run with more marketing success than actual silverware, should not take the president by surprise. Following his own words, "for the biggest club in the world, only the best is enough," and his erratic decision-making of the last few years has been far from good.