A goal from Raphael Varane ten minutes from time denied Barça a victory at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium tonight. Cesc Fabregas has given Barça the lead early in the second half but Barça missed chances to add further goals and Varane’s equalizer now leaves the tie wide open for the second leg at Camp Nou in four weeks’ time.
As expected Jordi Roura opted for Barça’s cup once de gala with Pinto in goal, Alves, Piqué, Puyol and Alba in defence, a midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Fabregas, and Pedro, Messi and Iniesta leading the line. José Mourinho had to deal with the absences of Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao and Di Maria. His big surprise was giving a debut to new signing Diego Lopez in goal, which suggests quite clearly that Antonio Adan was used in Mourinho’s ongoing dispute with Casillas, going with a starting XI of Diego Lopez, Essien, Varane, Carvalho, Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Khedira, Callejon, Ozil, Ronaldo, Benzema in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Right from the start Madrid pushed high to try and unsettle Barça’s possession game. In the very first minute Pedro was robbed and Ronaldo got a run at Piqué which ended with a yellow card for the Barça defender, though the replay suggested the Portuguese striker took a dive. From the resulting free kick Ronaldo hit a wicked swerver that Pinto did well to get his hand to.
Barça took about ten minutes to begin to get a hold on things, but as soon as Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Fabregas began to find each other the chances began to come. Messi dribbled in from the right but after passing back to Fabregas he strayed offside for the return. Then in the twelfth minute Iniesta scooped a delightful chip over the defence for Alba’s run into the area but the full back pulled a difficult volley across the goal and well wide.
Barça were now dominating possession (32%-68% after 20 minutes) but Madrid’s pressing in the first half, with Ozil looking very lively, meant some mistakes crept into Barça’s game. Xavi was robbed about 30 yards out, leading to Benzema receiving a pass on the right of the area but his cross was just too high for Ronaldo. However, the better chances were coming at the other end. First Xavi curled a free kick crashing against the crossbar, then Lopez had to come out quickly at Pedro’s feet, then in the 24th minute Fabregas intercepted an underhit backpass from Carvalho before playing a pass back for Xavi whose low shot was miraculously cleared off the line by Varane.
Barça should have been in front by now but in the 27th minute Benzema had Madrid’s best chance of the half. Xavi again lost the ball in Barça’s half, the ball came forward to Callejon who found Benzema in a good position to the left but after a good first control the French striker volleyed just wide from inside the area.
There was a short period with defences on top with Essien making one good tackle to prevent Messi going through, and Busquets stopping a dangerous run from Ozil. Then in the 35th minute Callejon was sent through on the right, with Alves playing him onside, but the Brazilian full back made up for this by getting in front of Benzema to clear when Callejon’s low cross came in though both Alves and Benzema smashed into Pinto who needed treatment before continuing. The first half ended with some end-to-end stuff but the defences again got the better of the exchanges with Varane doing very well to prevent Alba’s surge into the area and Piqué, at the other end, classily cutting out Ozil’s pass.
Early in the second half Benzema fired over after exchanging passes with Ronaldo but Barça took the lead soon after. Fabregas had already had one mishit shot hit Varane after an intricate build-up with Messi and Iniesta, then in the 50th minute Messi tried a diagonal ball towards Pedro who had moved to the left, Callejon got back to intercept but his clearance didn’t go far and Messi pounced on it, Madrid’s defence all moved out except for Callejon, and when Messi knocked the ball forward for Fabregas, Callejon left him onside and Fabregas went clean through before shooting across Lopez and inside the far post.
The goal appeared to make things easier for Barça. Varane had to make another excellent last ditch intervention to prevent Fabregas after Iniesta’s chip forward, but Madrid weren’t out of it yet. One good build up ended with Modric finding Essien on the right and for once Barça’s defence hesitated when the cross came in, and despite the bounce making the opportunity more difficult, Ronaldo will have been very disappointed to send his header wide at the far post. There were these brief moments of Madrid danger but Barça continued to dominate possession, offering one rondo of more than a minute that had the Bernabéu whistling their frustration. A skillful combination between Alba and Iniesta on the left gave Iniesta the chance to set up Alves for a drive, but the Brazilian couldn’t repeat his cup golazo from last season, this time firing straight at Lopez.
Madrid seemed to be running out of options but one break from Khedira freed Ozil on the right, again a dangerous low cross came in but Piqué did brilliantly to get to the ball before Ronaldo and knock the ball out for a corner. Piqué needed treatment for a whack on the arm and there was an interesting incident after when Piqué picked up a lighter thrown from the crowd but as he started to attract the referee’s attention Puyol pulled him back, telling him to forget it and get on with concentrating on the game.
Barça got back to controlling the game and the tie could easily have been sewn up in the next ten minutes. Fabregas had a half volley hit too high after Alves’s cross, then in the 73rd minute Fabregas sent a glorious long ball forward for Pedro to chase, the Canarian ran and ran, from the halfway line and into the penalty area, he kept going until he reached the edge of the six-yard box but finally pulled his shot just wide of the far post.
Messi had been having one of his less-effective games but after Arbeloa and Alonso had both patronising patted his cheek as he protested a decision, he briefly came to life. First he was just offside after Alexis, on for Pedro, had done well to slip a pass through, then twice he was denied, first by Varane’s good tackle and a minute later by Lopez who was out quickly to intercept Fabregas’s pass.
Barça paid for the missed chances in the 81st minute. Varane had been the hero for Madrid in defence and now he turned up in Barça’s area, leaping above Piqué and Fabregas to head Ozil’s cross from the right past Pinto. Barça’s keeper got his hand to the ball but Varane’s header bounced first and was extremely difficult to keep out.
There was still time for either side to win the game. Alba made one last charge forward but Diego did well to get a hand to his powerful shot from the edge of the area. Then in injury time Alba was diving in front of his own goal to head a clearance out for corner. There was a last chance in the final seconds but Puyol got in the way to block. It would have been unjust for Madrid to sneak it at the death.
Although the result can be looked at as positive, we really let Madrid off the hook here. We can be happy with the performance but unfortunately we didn’t kill the game when we should have, and we may end up regretting the chances from Xavi, Pedro, Fabregas, Alba and Messi. In my preview I predicted a 3-3 draw and given how open the game was it could well have ended like that but for the goalkeepers and the first-rate games from Piqué and Varane. However, given the run of play and the quality of the chances it could just as easily have finished 1-4 or 2-5 as predicted in the comments section by FC Barcelona Rocks, Diatus and Bc9jaCule. It’s now all to play for in the second leg on February 27 at Camp Nou.
Real Madrid: Diego Lopez; Essien, Varane, Carvalho, Arbeloa; Xabi Alonso, Khedira; Callejon (Modric m58), Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema (Higuian m62).
Barça: Pinto 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 8.5, Puyol 7.5, Alba 7; Xavi 7, Busquets 7, Fabregas 7.5 (Thiago m85, –); Pedro 6.5 (Alexis m76, 6.5), Messi 6.5, Iniesta 8.
Goals: m50 Fabregas 0-1, m81 Varane 1-1.
Yellow cards: m1 Piqué, m16 Carvalho, m42 Callejon, m72 Alves, m82 Puyol, m89 Xavi Alonso.