Real Madrid produced a classic away performance at Camp Nou to beat Barcelona 3-1 and progress to the final of the Copa del Rey 4-2 on aggregate.
Cristiano Ronaldo struck the first two goals, either side of half time, to all but seal the tie as he continued his remarkable record of now having scored in his last six matches at the home of Madrid’s fiercest rivals. With just over 20 minutes remaining, Raphael Varane rubbed salt into Barcelona’s wounds as he added to his strike in the first leg. Jordi Alba's goal in the dying minutes did little to ease the malaise of a then half-empty stadium.
It was a win that was richly deserved and will have Madrid looking on with anticipation to the remainder of the season and the second leg of their Champions League Round-of-16 match with Manchester United in a week’s time. In contrast, having lost 2-0 in Milan last week, Barcelona must be beginning to ask serious questions about the direction in which a once-promising campaign is heading.
Madrid defended admirably throughout an always engaging contest and negated the mostly lackluster threat of their opponents, while consistently giving the home side problems on the counter attack.
In contrast of what was to follow, it was Barcelona who began brightly, looking to put themselves in the diving seat in the tie. In the first two minutes, Andres Iniesta flashed a shot wide and Lionel Messi produced fine control at the near post and an instant effort on the turn that went inches wide of the far upright.
But Madrid quickly got to grips with their opponents defensively. The visitors found a fine balance, not sitting too deep, but defending in numbers, when needed, in the right areas and always with quality. On the break, their threat was always visible.
Madrid had already given fare warning of the danger before Ronaldo, perhaps the most threatening counter-attacking player in the world, was played through down the right one-on-one with Gerard Pique.
Ronaldo backed his defender into the area, before befuddling him with an array of stepovers that led Pique to dive in with a rash challenge that brought the Portuguese down and left referee Alberto Mollenco with a simple decision to point to the spot.
The ferocious protests directed at the referee by a host of Barcelona players was out of keeping with the obviousness of the foul and set the tone for a tempestuous match.
Ronaldo eventually got to put the ball on the spot and never looked like missing as he sent Barcelona’s cup goalkeeper Jose Pinto the wrong way.
Barcelona’s unwarranted fury with the referee continued throughout the first half as both Cesc Fabregas and Pedro were denied aggressive appeals for penalties. On both occasions, though, the referee appeared to get the decision correct.
Despite Barcelona’s usual high quota of possession, they continued to look sluggish in attack. As against Milan, the passing lacked speed and incisiveness and Messi was unable to lift his side.
Needing a goal to take the tie into extra time, Barcelona attempted to quicken the pace at the end of the first 45 minutes, but the closest they could muster to a goal was a Messi free-kick that flew just past the post.
Despite an early effort from Fabio Coentrao that Pinto blocked away, Barcelona upped the ante further at the start of the second half. There was a noticeable increase in the pace of their passing and they had their opponents penned back.
Yet Madrid survived, with their defenders producing a succession of blocks and when Barcelona did get through Lopez saved smartly from Sergio Busquets.
Just as Barcelona were turning the screw, Madrid struck with a classic sucker punch.
The visitors broke from the edge of their own box and a straight ball over the top criminally left Di Maria one-on-one with Puyol. The veteran defender slipped to the turf, allowing the Argentinean to fire a low shot that Pinto kept at bay, but Ronaldo was on hand to chest down and smash left-footed into the net.
It was a crucial goal that left Barcelona needing to score three times, a feat that never looked likely.
The result was put beyond all doubt in the 68th minute. Varane, the man of the match in the first leg, capped another fine performance as he rose all too easily ahead of Pique and powered a header in off the cross bar.
Barcelona kept trying to make something happen right until the last and got some reward as Alba produced a tidy finish from Iniesta's delightful ball over the top.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.