A sensational late goal from Gareth Bale secured Real Madrid the Copa del Rey after a 2-1 win over rivals Barcelona at the Mestalla.
Bale showed his incredible pace to sprint from the halfway line before beating Jose Manuel Pinto in the Barcelona goal with five minutes remaining to deliver Madrid the first silverware of the Spanish season and complete one of the worst weeks in the history of Barcelona.
Without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale backed up the world record transfer fee that took him from Tottenham to Madrid last summer and can now savor the first winners’ medal of his career. The story could not be contrasted more sharply with that of Barcelona’s big arrival of last summer, Neymar, who hit the post with a glorious chance to take the match into extra time in the dying minutes.
Instead, Barcelona, who equalized Angel di Maria’s early goal through Marc Bartra’s header in the second half, have likely now lost all hope for any silverware in a season that was always teetering on the edge of crisis and has now been plunged into it in recent days. Following their Champions League exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid, a defeat to Granada at the weekend left them four points adrift of the Primera Division summit. And now Madrid will doubtless take great pleasure in inflicting quite probably the final death knell in their season as well as possibly a glorious era at the Camp Nou.
Evidence of just why Barcelona have struggled so profusely of late was in large supply throughout much of the encounter. The tactics of manager Gerardo Martino will only increase the pressure on his shoulders. Despite the lack of height in the side and the presence of Messi through the middle, Barcelona relied extraordinarily heavily on crosses, half of them from Dani Alves and most of them hit in aimlessly with no-one close to getting on the receiving end.
Madrid were not at their best, either, yet were happy to concede possession in the knowledge that they had the weaponry to hurt Barcelona on the break, even without Ronaldo. In the 11th minute, a classic Madrid counter put them in front. Bale and Isco were involved, before Karim Benzema played a superb early ball through to Di Maria. Jordi Alba looked to have succeeded in pushing the Argentine wide enough to prevent a successful shot on goal, but the low strike squirmed off the hand of Pinto and into the net. As well as missing Gerard Pique, the goal again illustrated how damaging the loss of Victor Valdes has been, with only a 38-year-old veteran as his backup.
Madrid could have been further ahead by the half-time interval. Alba this time did prevent a certain goal when producing a desperate saving challenge to stop Isco putting away Bale’s pull back. Bale might have had an early goal for himself, too, but Benzema’s ball looking for his unmarked teammate on the break was poor and intercepted.
Meanwhile, the closest Barcelona came to getting level was Lionel Messi putting a snap-shot wide from the edge of the box after Neymar’s layoff. It was one of the rare positive contributions for the pair, with Messi left frustrated and Neymar again played out of position on the right flank.
Yet, with Madrid unable to put their opponents away, Barcelona grabbed an equalizer out of nowhere. Pinto had just kept out a shot from Benzema at his near post when Barcelona struck. From a Xavi corner from the left, Pepe was caught under the ball and Bartra, a fitness doubt before the match, supplied a fine headed past Iker Casillas.
Luka Modric struck a post with a fierce drive as Madrid looked to restore their advantage, but the Croatian’s former Tottenham teammate was about to make the most dramatic of game-winning interventions. Bale’s goal took the breath away but also exposed the often shambolic nature of this Barcelona side as well as their continued defensive frailties.
Bale picked up the ball on the touchline on halfway and could simply knock the ball ahead of center-back Bartra and into yards of space. The young defender tried to nudge his opponent out of play and prevent him from getting to the ball first, but his ploy failed hopelessly. Bale just switched on the afterburners and ran around Bartra from yards off the pitch before showing composure as he cut inside and then prodding through the legs of the hapless Pinto.
Neymar could have salvaged at least extra time, but the Brazilian instead poked a shot against the post when played clean through on goal as time and Barcelona’s season expired.