Perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo was always going to overshadow the Spanish Super Cup. It was all about him, and at the same time it wasn’t. The Portuguese was conspicuously truant this summer. He jetted home from the Confederations Cup in Russia to fete his twins, holidayed in Ibiza and threw a tantrum at his club Real Madrid and the Spanish tax authorities.

But he took center stage when it mattered. He restricted his physical exertion to a seven-minute cameo in the European Super Cup against Manchester United, but against FC Barcelona, in the first leg, Ronaldo upped his game. This was after all a confrontation with Lionel Messi, the player who has shaped football’s cosmos in the last decade and his personal antagonist.

Ronaldo ban overshadowed first leg win

In the 58th minute, Ronaldo was introduced and his next 24 minutes on the field were remarkably eventful. Messi equalised for Barcelona from the penalty spot in the 77th minute. Cue Ronaldo’s retaliation, with a stunning long-range shot, leaving the lax defending Gerard Pique flabbergasted.

It all seemed to good to be true in his first competitive match of the season. Ronaldo duly took off his shirt to perform his irksome chippendale-routine, flexing his muscles all too zealously. But he then showed his jersey to the Camp Nou, mimicking Messi’s celebration at the Bernabeu last season and his antics earned him a booking. A few minutes later referee Ricardo Bengoechea understood Ronaldo’s collision with Samuel Umtiti to be a ‘Schwalbe.’

Ultimately, Ronaldo’s sending-off – his shove of Bengoechea and his ensuing five-game suspension – overshadowed Madrid’s brilliant 1-3 victory. They were sharp, mastering their opponents and championing their own game, even without the influential midfielder Luka Modric. Madrid demonstrated a culture of winning.

Barcelona were impotent. Upfront Gerard Delofeu was a miscreant, lining up alongside Luis Suarez and Messi. He was a stark reminder that MSN is no more, the South American trident which the sum of its parts and vice versa defied footballing logic. They were a synchronised frontline and can’t be replaced.

But Madrid dominated the second leg too

In the second leg Madrid’s utter dominance affirmed Barcelona’s dysfunction. It was a measure of the Blaugrana’s current existential malaise. The hosts at the Bernabeu played with the flair of the Catalans. Their Barcelona-esque game oozed confidence and class. They pressed high up the pitch, retained possession quickly and played soothing one-touch football. Even with Casemiro, Isco and Gareth Bale on the bench, Real played staccato football, Barcelona a slow-motion game.

In the stands Ronaldo watched on. What he saw was perhaps disconcerting on a personal level. Madrid didn’t need him. Marco Asensio was thriving again, scoring a brilliant opening goal. The young Spaniard is an exponent of Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane’s integration of the club’s lesser stars. On the right channel Lucas Vasquez bombed up and down. The Galacticos won the tie 5-1 on aggregate. This was Zidane’s seventh trophy in a mere 20 months in charge.

The divide between Madrid and Barcelona resulted in a 180-minute no-contest, a protracted encounter between boys and men. It did nothing to assuage the gaping and harrowing reality of Neymar’s departure from Catalonia. Messi didn’t lead his team. At the age of 30, his genteel game, arched on feints, sideway springs, and matrix of simple movements remain a thrill, but demanding he carry his team may be too much. Even his outsize star and twinkling feet can’t soften Barcelona’s indisposition: the leaky defense, the mechanical midfield, and an unhinged frontline. Where was the much lauded philosophy of Barcelona?

What next for Barcelona?

This was neither the end of an era nor the collapse of an empire, but Barcelona were playing with ‘Weltschmerz.’ They need to rebuild or suffer dominion from the capital. New Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde shouldn’t copy the past, but build the future.

It’s unclear how he plans to do that. On Monday, in a summer of mega-money in an inflated market, Barcelona signed Paulinho from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande, perhaps a transfer as curious as Neymar’s $264 million move from Catalonia to Paris Saint-Germain. The physical midfielder had moved to China after flopping at Tottenham Hotspur.

It had seemed a decadent, premature, and ill-conceived retirement plan for the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup winner, but staring in Asia, he enticed Barcelona. The Brazilian, however, won’t restore the balance in the Catalan universe, so distorted by the economic power of PSG and Qatar. Paulinho is a typical English-style midfielder, who perhaps doesn’t fit in Barcelona’s grand tradition of virtuoso midfielders. Inadvertently, he may come to symbolise the incompetence of the club’s board and the disintegration of a great institution.