FC Barcelona were forced to settle for a draw in the opening leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final clash with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu as Cesc Fàbregas’ second-half opener was cancelled out by a late header from Raphael Varane. Both sides created a plethora of chances all throughout the game, but thanks to a combination of last-ditch defending and profligate finishing, neither side could really capitalise, and on reflection, a draw is arguably the fairest result.
FC Barcelona started with arguably their strongest possible XI; aside from Pinto’s inclusion in goal, each of the other starters had either won the European Championship, or the UEFA Champions League; but would they be good enough to walk away from the Santiago Bernabeu with a win? Real Madrid on the other hand started with Michael Essien in defense, and Jose Callejon on the wing; with so many injuries and suspensions to contend with, the odds seemed stacked against Los Blancos. Would either side be able to take the initiative by the end of this first-leg?
Real Madrid started well, immediately forcing Barcelona onto the back foot as Cristiano Ronaldo got an early chance to stretch his legs down the left-hand side. Breaking away from one challenge, Ronaldo was tripped by Gerard Piqué, and within a minute, Real Madrid had a chance to take the lead. Piqué picked up a yellow card for his troubles; although it would have been worse if not for a spectacular save from stand-in keeper Jose Manuel Pinto. As per usual, Ronaldo’s free-kick was struck with power, and Pinto had to be at his very best to judge the flight of the ball and make the save.
Clearly, Jose Mourinho was keen to take the game to the visitors right from the opening whistle, and as soon as Barcelona got their foot on the ball, they were instantly swarmed by a number of white shirts. Naturally, there were a couple of late tackles thrown in for good measure; but this was nothing new. The Blaugrana are used to a little rough-and-tumble and they tend to start slowly away from home; would they be able to survive the early Madrid pressure?
In short, yes. It may have taken 10 or so minutes, but Barcelona eventually settled into their groove and began to chip away at a resolute Real Madrid defense. Lionel Messi in particular was looking dangerous, and it was his close control on the counter-attack that set up Barça’s first chance of the evening. With an opportunity to take on Ricardo Carvalho, Messi instead decided to wait for support from his teammates, and he soon received help from Andrés Iniesta. Iniesta, starting in an advanced role on the left-hand side of attack, proceeded to "scoop" the ball over Michael Essien to find the overlapping run of Jordi Alba. Unfortunately, Alba couldn’t control his shot and the chance went begging.
Ricardo Carvalho – who has seen limited action thus far this season – didn’t take long to even the yellow card count with an obvious foul, and he nearly picked up a second yellow just minutes later with a foul on Andrés Iniesta. The referee gave Carvalho the benefit of the doubt, but Madrid were not out of the woods yet. There was still a free-kick to contend with; but the Bernabeu crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief as Xavi’s effort rattled off the frame of Diego Lopez’ goal. Xavi then went closer still with a shot assisted by Cesc Fabregas, who pounced on a mistake from Carvalho, but Raphael Varane spared his teammate’s blushes with an exceptional goal-line clearance.
However, as Barcelona committed more and more players to attack, they left themselves susceptible to potential counter-attacks. Karim Benzema looked to take advantage, collecting a lobbed through ball from Ozil to volley the ball past Pinto’s near post. It was end-to-end stuff, and the longer the game went on, the more it appeared to favour Real Madrid. Barcelona really were under pressure, and if it wasn’t for crucial interventions from Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué, they could have easily found themselves a goal down. Somehow, someway, the two teams went in level at the break. It was tense, it was dramatic; this was El Clasico.
Neither manager made a change at the break, but Barcelona came out a few minutes early and – coincidentally? – started the brighter team. Recovering from Benzema’s early chance, Barcelona took the game to the makeshift Madrid defense and immediately reaped the rewards. Capitalising on a poor clearance from Jose Callejon, Messi stabbed the ball through the Madrid defense to find Cesc Fàbregas, who was being played onside by the aforementioned Callejon, and one-on-one with Diego Lopez, Fàbregas kept his composure to hand Barcelona the lead. It was a superb finish from the Catalan midfielder, and now Jose Mourinho’s side had it all to do.
Mourinho immediately made a change, replacing Callejon with Luka Modric, which meant a reshuffle offensively, as Mesut Ozil drifted out to the right-hand side. That allowed Michael Essien a little more space to work with on the overlap, and with that extra space, the Ghanaian nearly created an equaliser. His driven cross was a teasing one, but unfortunately for the home crowd, there was just too much pace on Essien’s delivery and as a result, Ronaldo couldn’t convert his diving header at the far post.
Karim Benzema was the next to make way, Gonzalo Higuain his replacement; and the Argentine could have made an instant impact if it wasn’t for a terrific intervention from Gerard Piqué. Despite his early yellow card, Piqué launched into a sliding challenge at the far post, and just did enough to nick the ball away from Ronaldo who was poised to tap-in an equaliser at the far post.
However, in a role reversal from previous encounters, as Madrid pressed forward in search of an equaliser, Barça had the opportunity to strike on the counter. After Puyol decisively dealt with what could have been a dangerous free-kick, Cesc Fàbregas initiated a counter-attack with a delightful long-pass for Pedro. Bearing down on goal, Pedro looked certain to score, but in the end he got too greedy – he got too close to Diego Lopez’ goal and clipped his shot agonisingly wide of the target. It was a golden chance, and Pedro really should have scored.
Pedro was then taken off for Alexis Sánchez and while the Chilean has struggled for goals, there can be no faulting his work-rate. Winning the ball back in the offensive third, Alexis found Lionel Messi with an excellent through ball and Messi looked to have killed the game with the second goal of the evening, but the assistant referee correctly ruled the goal out for offside. Leo was then denied an obvious free-kick, as Carvalho stuck out a hand to stop a trademark Messi dribble, and typically, the missed call would come back to haunt the Blaugrana.
In truth though, Barcelona really could have done more to deny Real Madrid their equaliser. For starters, Mesut Ozil should have been closed down on the right-wing. At what point does any top-class defender think it’s a good idea to let Ozil – one of the most creative players in football – cut inside onto his favoured left foot AND allow him time to pick out a cross? It was criminal defending, and that’s before the ball even entered the penalty area. Then we have the marking; why was Fàbregas marking Raphael Varane? And if Fàbregas wasn’t marking Varane, then why didn’t he get out of Piqué’s way? Varane powered the header into the back of the net, and just like that, Real Madrid were level.
Thiago Alcântara replaced Cesc Fàbregas as Barcelona looked to restore their goal advantage, but it wasn’t to be. Jordi Alba had the best chance to win the game, but his stinging shot was easily parried by Diego Lopez and Barça had to settle for the draw. On reflection, they will probably be pleased with the result, but it does leave them with a lot to do at the Camp Nou. Next up, Barça return to league action as they take on Valencia at the Mestalla. Until then, Visca el Barça!