Unsung Rakitic a constant in changing times for El Clasico
The weight of transition pulls increasingly heavily on Real Madrid and Barcelona's historic rivalry nowadays and it was painfully felt after an hour of the Blaugrana's 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Gareth Bale was the team-news headline on Saturday, restored to the Madrid XI after his own acts of goalscoring belligerence and Los Blancos' blank as Barca ran out 3-0 Copa del Rey semi-final second-leg winners on the same ground in midweek.
Of course, Madrid's forward line in 2018-19 is as much about who isn't there as who is. After 61 ineffective minutes, Bale was replaced by Marco Asensio. He was booed for not making the difference, booed for not being Cristiano Ronaldo and – probably – booed for liking golf.
It cuts both ways for Madrid this season, whose transition to life after Zinedine Zidane is likely to extend to three head coaches after Santiago Solari presided over the collapse of their quest for domestic honours this week.
If Karim Benzema hits a goalscoring run as he did earlier in the campaign, he is liberated by Ronaldo's move to Juventus; if Vinicius Jr dazzles he is the next in line to the five-time Ballon d'Or winner's throne.
But if Bale, Vinicius, Benzema and the rest allow Barcelona to end their LaLiga hopes four days after dumping them out of the cup, Ronaldo stands as the preening elephant in the room.
Lionel Messi regally held this match under his spell, the spaces he tore open on the Bernabeu turf when he stunned Madrid playing as a false nine in 2009 seeming never to have closed up. That game marked the beginning of a celebrated era in the rivalry that he has come to dominate.
The quality elsewhere was noticeably lower than those concussive encounters between Guardiola and Mourinho, between MSN and BBC. Transitions from greatness are hard.
The sight of Messi dropping deep to orchestrate a familiar victory on enemy territory while barely breaking sweat – his dissection of Sergio Ramos was equal parts mischief and malice – means Barcelona should escape their own version of the Ronaldo conundrum for a few years yet.
However, as more celebrated names of the past decade approach the end of their time on El Clasico's stage, the match-winner showed such difficult transitions can sometimes be seamless.
Ivan Rakitic's first season at Barca was Xavi's last. The all-time midfield great was able to ride off into the sunset with a fourth Champions League medal after watching Rakitic open the scoring in a 3-1 final win over Juventus.
The former Sevilla midfielder's bite and drive allayed with technical assurance made him a key component as Barcelona's focus shifted under Luis Enrique; the frontline of Luis Suarez, Messi and Neymar becoming the team's focus.
Towards the end of Luis Enrique's tenure, Rakitic's future was a source of speculation and links to Inter sprung up this season, despite his sterling work in easing the club into life after Andres Iniesta.
Under-appreciation is perhaps the curse of a player good enough to always be surround by brilliance. Luka Modric was unable to lay a glove on Barcelona as Rakitic helped to carry the game away from his old friend, who cleaned up on the 2018 awards circuit after their exploits for Croatia.
The 30-year-old's dinked finish beyond Thibaut Courtois on the end of Sergi Roberto's 26th-minute was immaculate. But he knew that was only half the job done as he snapped into tackles, including a particularly enjoyable one on the beleaguered Ramos before half-time, and whirred relentlessly to keep Barcelona on the front foot.
Alongside Raktic, Arthur completed 71 minutes before making way for Arturo Vidal's fantastically rabid cameo. The Brazilian's 'new Xavi' tag remains, stylistically an obvious one. The incoming Frenkie De Jong is the new Iniesta, or new Sergio Busquets. Or both.
The clamour for version 2.0 of past heroes seems a little disingenuous to the club's most consistent midfield performer of the present. Barcelona would do well to delay the day when they have to replace Ivan Rakitic; they will have a hell of a job on their hands.