With the dust settling from a thrilling Clasico in Riyadh, Real Madrid still have rivals Barcelona where they want them, although the gap between them has shrunk, meaning both sides walked away from Wednesday night's game reinforced.
Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema’s supreme form helped Los Blancos earn a 3-2 extra-time victory over the Blaugrana in their Spanish Super Cup semi-final showdown, although it took a late Fede Valverde winner to separate the sides.
Barcelona left the game beaten but bolstered by being able to compete with La Liga’s leaders, with coach Xavi Hernandez convinced that his ideas are taking shape.
The return to action of both Pedri and Ansu Fati, whose header forced extra-time, were further positives for Barcelona, along with Ferran Torres belatedly making his debut.
Those players will take some time to reach their best form, given their respective injury lay-offs, but Xavi almost has a full squad to draw from now.
“We played with a lot of complexes for 20 or 25 minutes, but we managed to get rid of them,” the Catalan legend told reporters.
“It was a day of bravery and to get rid of the inferiority complex; this Barcelona can compete with anybody.”
Madrid, meanwhile, march on and will face Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final, their first chance of silverware in this campaign.
It would be just reward for Carlo Ancelotti’s side's strong first half of the season, but there are worries at Madrid about the team’s strength in depth, and just how much of their form is being propelled by Vinicius and Benzema.
The dynamic duo still sparkled in the dim light at the King Fahd International Stadium, helping bring excitement back to the Clasico after several dull installments of the historic clash.
Vinicius was a handful for Dani Alves to deal with all night and even the otherwise excellent Ronald Araujo could not handle him when he fired Madrid ahead.
The winger burst past the defender and rifled an effort into the top corner past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, again displaying his newfound poise in front of goal.
Alves was later booked for a foul on his Brazilian compatriot, with Vinicius enjoying himself on the counterattack, gleefully bursting forward when given the opportunity.
Benzema was similarly thorny for Barcelona’s defence to handle.
Karim Benzema has Barcelona on strings 🔥 pic.twitter.com/8BFIHyItGf— GOAL (@goal) January 12, 2022
He turned well and struck the post before eventually firing Madrid back ahead.
The forward saw an effort parried by Ter Stegen but ghosted into space to turn home after Dani Carvajal crossed the rebound back into the area.
Spain and former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, watching from the presidential box, chose Benzema as the man of the match.
Xavi himself went to congratulate the forward on his display at full-time.
It had been the Frenchman who robbed Sergio Busquets in midfield to set up Vinicius for the first goal too.
“We’re tired from the game, we gave everything,” said Benzema. “Barcelona did damage with the ball and we had to chase after it.”
Madrid coach Ancelotti agreed. “We must be honest,” he added. “Barcelona played a good game.”
However, both insisted Madrid deserved to win the game. They are still a step ahead of their bitter rivals, with five consecutive Clasico victories making painful reading for those in Catalonia.
And yet, there are concerns about Ancelotti not trusting players beyond his first team, with the exception of a couple of favoured substitutes, and what will happen when his preferred picks inevitably tire in the second half of the season.
Federico Valverde is one of the midfielders hoping to play his way into Ancelotti’s good books and netting the winner will do him no harm, although he also has competition in the form of Eduardo Camavinga.
Others wonder if the team’s lack of a high-press and reliance on the counterattack will cost them when they come up against stronger opponents in the Champions League.
They are questions for Ancelotti to ponder but, for now, the coach will hope that Vinicius and Benzema continue to shred any team that crosses their path, starting with their opponents in Sunday’s final.