February is around the corner and the important games start coming thick and fast for Real Madrid and Barcelona. Wednesday night, the cup semifinal Clasico was the most important match in their seasons so far.
This season, the Cup has added importance for Real Madrid, trailing Barcelona in points in the league and with barely no chance to retain their La Liga title.
The game started with a bang, as Madrid’s high pressure on the Barcelona players delivered an early goal-scoring opportunity for Los Blancos.
Ronaldo first stole the ball and then was fouled by Gerard Pique just a few feet away from Pinto’s box. Just 40 seconds into the game, the Portuguese had a free kick from a great position near the left corner of the Barcelona box. His shot was on target, but despite initially taking a step the wrong way, Pinto recovered well and made a good save.
Surely motivated by this early chance, Madrid kept on pressuring high and smothered Barcelona’s passing play. During the first 10 minutes of the game, Madrid’s pressure would deliver a few more chances. Michael Essien, in particular, was allowed to play a few dangerous crosses into Pinto’s box.
It was not until the 10th minute that Barcelona could go through one of their normal passages of play, putting together a string of one-touch passes. Their efforts were very nearly rewarded, after a quick exchange between Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas left the Argentine one-on-one with Diego Lopez, only for the linesmen to correctly call a marginal offside.
This was the first sign that Barcelona were growing into the game, though, and Madrid started slightly backing off their pressure. Barça’s next chance came with one of their trademark moves. A quick exchange between Messi and Andres Iniesta on the edge of the box was followed by a run from defense from Jordi Alba.
The defender burst into the box and was found exquisitely by Iniesta with a scooped ball. However, Alba’s coolness deserted him completely, and he misfired badly under little pressure.
By the 20th minute we were settling into the pattern of most recent Clasicos. Madrid let Barcelona enjoy most of the possession but looked incisive on their counterattacks. Barcelona's best chance came when Xavi smashed a free kick onto Diego Lopez's crossbar, following a foul by Ricardo Carvalho.
In the 23rd minute, Carvalho, who was having a hard time dealing with Pedro and Messi, almost gifted a goal to Barcelona. His short backpass left Lopez completely stranded and Xavi didn’t score from the ensuing shot only thanks to an epic clearance on the line by Raphael Varane.
This sequence of play was indicative of the contrast between both central defenders for Madrid. Carvalho was unsecure and increasingly frustrated, while Varane had already had a couple of crucial interventions to prevent Barcelona from scoring.
In the 26th minute came Madrid’s best chance of the half. After some good pressure from Madrid in midfield, Karim Benzema was put in by Jose Callejon on the left of Pinto’s goal, and smashed the ball into the side-netting.
Messi, largely absent in the early stages, progressively grew into the game as the half went on. However, Madrid’s defenders, Varane and Essien in particular, put in a great shift to make sure the Argentine didn’t make his mark on the game. In contrast, Ronaldo was participating very little in Madrid’s play and had practically disappeared from the game.
The temperature went up a few notches in the last five minutes of the half, a heated discussion between Dani Alves, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa was quickly followed by a yellow card for Jose Callejon after he yelled at the referee for a foul decision.
Before the end of the half, Varane would make another crucial intervention, with an excellent tackle on Messi when he was flying toward Lopez’s goal with the ball at his feet.
Despite a bright start, by the end of the first half Madrid probably felt happy they had not conceded.
Ronaldo started the second half as he had the first, by almost creating Madrid’s first goal. A series of short passes led to Ronaldo being in possession well inside Pinto’s box, his sweet backheel into Benzema’s path was wasted by the Frenchman, who fired the ball well over the bar.
Barcelona quickly took over the game, however, and returned to the pattern they had established in the later stages of the first half. At first their possession seemed to lack any penetration, with a string of intricate passing coming to nothing, but in the 49th minute Fabregas would open the scoring for Barça.
Paradoxically, it was after a counterattack rather than a long spell of possession.
Messi received a long ball and with a beautiful touch controlled it and delivered it into Fabregas’ path. The former Arsenal captain made no mistake and smashed the ball past Diego Lopez. At that point, it was hard to say the goal hadn’t been coming.
In the minutes after the goal Madrid looked slightly shell shocked, with Ronaldo giving away two balls cheaply in quick succession, and another great tackle by Varane preventing Messi from immediately adding another goal for Barca.
Seconds after Varane’s tackle, Messi was denied another one-on-one with Lopez, this time by an incorrect offside decision from the linesman.
In the 57th minute, Jose Mourinho chose to make his first substitution of the game and threw on Luka Modric for the rather disappointing Callejon. Barca continued to control the game, happy to pass the ball around at the back now they had their all-important goal.
In the 59th minute, Ronaldo inexplicably headed wide from just a meter from Pinto’s goal after a good cross by Essien from the right flank. Another sign that this was not going to be the Portuguese’s night.
Minutes later a great show of skills between Alba and Iniesta on the left flank allowed Dani Alves a clear shot on Lopez’s goal. His powerful shot was straight at Lopez and stung the goalkeeper’s hands.
The second substitution for Madrid followed quickly, as Benzema was replaced by Gonzalo Higuain in the 64th minute. At this point, the official foul stats were a clear illustration of Barcelona’s dominance, the Blaugrana having received 15 fouls and given away just one.
The game was sparking into life again, and with a just a quarter of the game remaining the chances started coming thick and fast.
First Gerard Pique made an excellent tackle to deny a sure goal from Ronaldo, who almost got on the end of a good cross from Ozil. As the minutes passed Madrid were imposing their game on Barcelona and once again growing into the match.
However, the Catalans would have the next two best chances, after two quick counterattacks. First a good run by Alves was wasted after Fabregas fired the ensuing cross well high, and then Pedro wasted an opportunity by firing wide in a one-on-one with Lopez.
Barcelona would live to regret those wasted chances.
It was Varane once again who made a crucial contribution for his side. In the 79th minute, he made an impeccable tackle to deny Messi, just inches away from Lopez's box. Replays suggested there could have been a handball by Carvalho in the buildup.
Just a minute later, Varane would top off his night with his match changing goal. Having ventured forward to try to rescue his team he jumped higher than Fabregas and Pique and connected well with a good cross from Ozil. His header smashed into the ground and bounced past Pinto. Varane had already had a man-of-the-match performance before his goal, and few will deny him that honor after his header.
The last 10 minutes were intense but only delivered one clear-cut chance, with Lopez making a good save to deny Jordi Alba.
By the end of an intense first leg of the semifinal, and despite Barcelona the greater number of chances, nothing has yet been defined, and Madrid will believe they can still progress.