Young defender Raphael Varane ensured Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey semifinal with Barcelona remains firmly in the balance after heading in a second-half equalizer in the first leg at the Bernabeu.
A 1-1 score-line was perhaps a fair result in an evenly-matched contest in which both superstars—Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—were largely frustrated, but that still had plenty of entertainment.
Cesc Fabrgeas put Barcelona into the lead five minutes after the break, before after making two crucial defensive interventions, Varane endeared himself further to the Madridistas with a goal nine minutes from time.
Varane was only involved because a slew of defensive absences, including Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao that forced a rejigged Madrid back line with Michael Essien at right back and Alvaro Arbeloa on the opposite side. But, for the most part, the home side held up well, in spite of all the supposed dissension within their camp.
Spurred on by the passionate home support, Madrid threatened early as Ronaldo, fouled by Gerard Pique on the edge of the area inside the first minute, stepped up and forced a fine save by Pinto to prevent the free-kick finding the net.
Barcelona were struggling to find their usual passing rhythm for which much credit must go to Madrid, for disrupting the visitors with their consistent pressing high up the pitch.
In one of Barcelona’s better spells of possession, Andres Iniesta picked out Jordi Alba with a delightful scooped pass into the area, but the full-back volleyed the ball both wide of the target and ahead of the unmarked Messi in the box.
On more than one occasion, Madrid created chances by winning the ball back inside Barcelona’s own half. After Xavi was stripped of possession, Benzema was found down the right but his cross agonizingly evaded the head of Ronaldo at the back post.
It was the same scenario that led to Madrid’s best chance of the opening period, as after getting the ball back in an advanced area, Jose Callejon found Benzema in space between the defense but, after flicking the ball up with his left foot, the striker volleyed disappointingly wide of the target with his right.
Benzema again came close late in the period as Dani Alves produced an outstanding intervention to prevent Jose Callejon’s cross from reaching the Frenchman.
While Madrid perhaps shaded the opening period, it was Barcelona who arguably came the closest to breaking the deadlock.
On both occasions it was Xavi that was denied in dramatic circumstances. First, his free-kick from 20 yards beat Madrid debutant goalkeeper Diego Lopez but crashed back off the cross bar. Later, after Ricardo Carvalho played a woefully short back pass, Fabregas nipped in and beat Lopez to the ball before knocking it back to Xavi, but Varane was on hand to clear off the line.
While the first-half narrative had been dominated by Madrid’s successful pressing high up the pitch, it was the standard bearers for that strategy, Barcelona, that ultimately profited from it. Lionel Messi was the man who stole in front of Xabi Alonso and found Fabregas in the clear with a first time pass and the former Arsenal man made no mistake with his authoritative finish past Lopez.
Before he became the goal-scoring hero, Varane also showed his defensive acumen. The 19-year-old showed his pace to prevent Fabregas finishing from a similar scenario to his goal just minutes later.
While Messi was struggling to find space at one end, Ronaldo was also failing to make a great impression as he was well shackled by Barcelona. His two best chances to make an impact came in quick succession as first he somehow headed Essien’s fine in-swinging cross wide form inside the six-yard box and then was denied by an outstanding challenge from Pique to prevent him tapping in at the far post.
In truth, Barcelona could have been out of sight before being pegged back. Fabregas missed a very presentable opportunity with a first-time shot over the bar. But the clearest chance of all fell the way of Pedro, who raced clear form inside his own half before producing an awful finish wide of Lopez’s goal.
Pedro’s profligacy coupled with Varane’s fine downward header as he got above two Barcelona defenders ensures that the tie remains firmly in the balance when the semifinal moves to the Camp Nou in four weeks’ time.