Cristiano Ronaldo said before the current Clasico series that despite Barcelona's recent history of pulling Real Madrid's trousers down and exposing the capital club to widespread ridicule, something had to give at some point. "He who laughs last laughs the longest," Ronaldo told reporters. "I hope at the end of the upcoming games it is Real Madrid that is laughing."
At halftime in the four-match Clasico-fest enthralling Spain, it's Madrid that is chuckling. And especially Ronaldo. Having never scored against Barcelona, the Portuguese has now done so twice in four days. He earned his team a face-saving point in the 1-1 draw Wednesday at the Bernabeu and the King's Cup trophy for the first time since 1993, even if Sergio Ramos conspired to see it crushed under the team bus.
That it was Real's first triumph in Spain's domestic knockout tournament in nearly 20 years is not so much a reflection of the standard of opposition than it is the fact that Los Blancos have long regarded the competition to be beneath them. But Pep Guardiola's short and successful reign at Barca has led Real to lower its sights. Jose Mourinho knows the value of a piece of silverware -- it gives the institution bragging rights. Doubtless that is why he chose to save his response to Barcelona honorary president and chief antagonizer Johan Cruyff until after the match on Wednesday.
Cruyff, you'll remember, labeled Mourinho "a coach for titles, not for soccer."
"Thank you, I like being a coach for titles," Mourinho retorted in his postmatch news conference.
That is the essential element that separates Barcelona from Real Madrid. The former likes to stress that the art of winning is more important than winning itself. Real as an institution couldn't care less about art, despite the grumblings of its own honorary president, Alfredo di Stefano, about Mourinho's style of play. The club has passed through three barren years, invested hundreds of millions of euros in players and made Mourinho the best-paid coach in the sport. A trophy, not admiration, was the required return.
The point Cruyff and Di Stefano fail to make is that not every team can play like Barca. Its players are schooled in one-touch movement from an early age, and most of the current team has been together for more than a decade. For better or worse, the evolution of the game has made stable teams of long-serving players an increasing rarity. For most other clubs -- primarily those with a stranglehold on global marketing, or an oil-rich sheikh or two behind it -- success is not something that can be incubated.
There is no right or wrong way to play the game. It's all about finding a way to win. Purists will purr over the prospect of a match between Arsenal and Barcelona as the epitome of beautful football. Certainly, recent meetings between the philosophical siblings have produced great entertainment. But the King's Cup final, for the neutral viewer, was just as exciting -- a pulsating, passionate affair in which both sides attacked and defended with relish. It is not often that Barcelona's players are riled, and the flaring of tempers was not solely because Real was the opponent. Mourinho has worked Barcelona out, first with Inter and now at Real. He has turned a 5-0 thrashing into a hard-fought 1-0 win in six months, squaring the season's series at 1-1-1. Before Saturday's league match, it had been two years since Real had even scored against Barca.
The great Spanish question has now also been reversed. For the entirety of Guardiola's tenure, heads have been scratched in the capital when how to beat Barcelona is the topic of debate. With a Champions League semifinal to play, the question now is whether Barca's adherence to its style is sustainable. It is too soon to talk of a power shift -- the league is heading to Catalonia. But the confidence with which Barcelona approached this series -- club president Sandro Rosell predicted another 5-0 win in the cup final -- has been dealt a blow.
That is why Mourinho gets the big paycheck. He was hired to break Barca's hegemony and has made broad strokes toward doing so. It isn't always art, but for Real, the ends justify the means.