Real at crossroads in Barca's shadow
The Real Madrid players were, apparently, "amazed". All week, they had been hoping for a grand response to the latest Barcelona beating. They wanted to go to Camp Nou on Wednesday night and - for pretty much the first time in Jose Mourinho's tenure - actually take the game to the Catalans with all of the attacking resources at their disposal.
That said. it's not really a case of want, it's a case of need, after the 2-1 home defeat in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.
On Monday morning, however, it became evident that Mourinho doesn't have the same intentions. The disenchantment in the squad was supposedly only equal to the meeting a few days after last May's similar 2-0 first-leg defeat in the Champions League semi-final, when Mourinho reportedly told his players that "the tie was lost".
That was at that point, journalist Diego Torres claims in his latest El Pais column, that some Real players first began to doubt the Portuguese. Over the last few weeks, Torres's insider articles on the club have become essential reading in Spanish football - even if they have often resembled a soap opera script and many Real supporters have roared about an agenda.
The most astounding allegation, of course, came at the weekend when it was reported that Sergio Ramos reacted antagonistically to Mourinho's criticism of his defensive work in an extraordinary exchange. Most intriguingly, though, there were all manner of neuroses and club issues wrapped up in the few sentences of reported dialogue; from who exactly holds power at Real, to the great unmentionable (and irrelevance) of Mourinho's own playing career.
Either way, it was the sort of reversal that the Portuguese simply isn't used to. But, perhaps most tellingly, it's also the sort of situation that Real Madrid simply haven't been used to for the vast majority of their history.
The Bernabeu may have seen an awful lot of backstabbing, media posturing and petty politics over the last few years, but they've been much more visible at Barca over recent decades. Between 1960 and 2003 at Camp Nou, virtually every chance of long-term victory was offset or unintentionally sabotaged by internal squabbling. Even Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team' of the early-90s died amid dismally familiar arguments between manager and president.
In fact, it's quite symbolic that the pattern was set six decades ago by a situation which was pretty much the exact negative image of today's. In the late 1950s, Real Madrid were undeniably the most admired team on the continent as they racked up European Cups in resounding fashion. Domestically, however, they began to have their position rocked by a nomadic but mercurial Latin manager in Helenio Herrera who was breaking all sorts of scoring records with a brilliant Barcelona.
Shortly after an acrimonious - and near-apocalyptic - European Cup semi-final defeat to Real in 1960, though, the Barcelona board finally had the excuse to get rid of an abrasive personality who had antagonised them one too many times.
Herrera was sacked and the dye was cast. Because of minor issues, Barcelona had dispensed with one of the major figures in their history and that pattern created the scarcely believable scenario in which one of the biggest clubs in the world only won two league titles and no European Cups in 31 years. That seemingly terminal situation, however, did have a tipping point. And all of the years of pain did at least provide a host of lessons as well as a unique opportunity to do something different. And definitive.
It was in 2003, when Real Madrid's Galactico project was perched on a precipice, that a group of dynamic and progressive young Catalan politicians decided that the direction of the club was all wrong. Shortly after taking over, new president Joan Laporta explained: "Our board of directors belongs to a different generation to the old ones. They innovate ... We have the resources to buy the best, but we don't want to buy a player if we have an emerging equivalent in our B side."
Although it has taken time, what has actually emerged is the perfect football pyramid. Not only are a gigantic club producing cutting-edge modern players but, at the top, they've got a manager (in Pep Guardiola) who intrinsically understands how to enhance them.
In contrast to that structure, Real have resembled - and often acted like - a shapeless mess. Typically, the Galacticos brought short-term success but destabilised the club long-term. It is by no means an exaggeration to argue that, unless Real completely alter the entire infrastructure of the club, it's going to be almost impossible to overtake Barcelona while Guardiola is in charge ... with one exception: keeping Mourinho.
And that's why many of the old players and power blocs at Real should be careful as regards how far they take any discord or dissent. No manager in world football - not even his only two equals, Sir Alex Ferguson and Guardiola - is so capable of stepping into a situation and making it successful as Mourinho. As such, in a club effectively built for the short-term, there is no more appropriate fit for Real than the Portuguese.
Of course, the constant argument against him now is that atrocious record against Barcelona. But it's also worth putting that record in its proper context. Sure, a fair few teams have beaten Barcelona with various different approaches over the last three-and-a-half years, but not when the Catalans have been at their best. The nature of Guardiola's meticulous psychological preparation means that Barcelona are the ultimate big-game team and it is remarkable how, when the stakes are highest, the side are at their most stunningly intense.
Few games, of course, see stakes as high as El Clasico and that means that Mourinho has experienced Barca through a prism that most other managers have not. What's more, although there were many caveats to the victory, Mourinho remains the only manager to beat this Barca at their best. Since Guardiola took over, they have won five of the six major trophies they have gone for: three Spanish titles, two Champions Leagues. The only exception? Inter's European Cup masterminded by Jose.
But, much as he has tried, the Portuguese has struggled to replicate the Italian side's approach against Barca at the Bernabeu. Real simply don't have the same intensely-driven defence. Their strengths lie in other areas: like that attack. As such, it is understandable that the Madrid players want to finally cut loose against Barcelona. But it is also misplaced.
Mourinho undoubtedly realises that to take the game to Barcelona is tantamount to football suicide and he is apparently very anxious to avoid another defeat like the 5-0 for the good of his reputation. Hence the constant - and somewhat justified - conservatism.
The tactical approach, of course, has had a few different colours to it: from aggressive challenges to assertive counter-attacks. For that, too, Mourinho has been criticised; so many different styles of containing Barca, always the same result. But, as complex as those tactics can get, sometimes the truth is much simpler: at their best, Barca are just a better team than Real and El Clasico always seems to bring out the very best in them.
If a manager with Mourinho's record cannot find the solution, then there is likely only one left: Real must do what Barcelona do did in 2003 and completely redirect the club. History will have to be reversed again. Otherwise, Barca will keep making it.
Miguel Delaney is a freelance European football writer and owner of Football Pantheon.