Having drawn 1-1 in the first leg at the Camp Nou, Spain’s fiercest rivals met for the rematch at the Santiago Bernabeu to settle the matter of going into the 2018/19 Copa Del Rey final.
There has been much speculation about the future of Isco Alarcon recently, and the Spain international was once again left out of matchday involvement by Real head coach Santiago Solari, despite being fit and ready to play. Having missed the previous four games, a lack of match rhythm was the likeliest cause for this decision. Apart from Isco, midfielders Brahim Diaz and Marcos Llorente, striker Mariano and defender Jesus Vallejo also missed out.
Keylor Navas was in goal. Captain Sergio Ramos teamed up with Raphael Varane in the hear of defence, with Dani Carvajal on the right and Sergio Reguilon on the left. Casemiro anchored the midfield behind the creative duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. Karim Benzema led the attacking line, flanked by Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Jr.
On the other hand, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde was without midfielder Rafinha (knee) and defender Thomas Vermaelen (calf). Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, who has also been a subject of speculation these days, and midfielder Arthur were minor doubts, but they were eventually named in the squad.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood between the posts. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet started as the centre-back duo, flanked by Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba. Sergio Busquets was the deepest one in midfield, with Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitić beside him. Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele flanked Luis Suarez upfront.
The First Half
Despite the Catalans needing a goal under threat of going out, it was Real Madrid who showed more determination and pressed higher early on. It took the visitors four minutes and Leo Messi to drop and pick the ball up in his own half to reach the attacking third of the pitch, and even then Dembele was easily stopped. Vazquez and Vinicius on the other hand both managed to storm Barca’s box less than a minute apart, but the visitors defended with focus.
However, in the eight minute, Messi used the space behind Casemiro to take the ball and employ Dembele again on the left, and the Frenchman’s cross caused all kinds of trouble at the far post where Suarez and Roberto tried to combine, but there were enough white shirts near by to deal with the danger.
Barcelona were trying to play with patience, holding the ball at the back for as long as possible and spring forward with a sudden pass into space created by clever movement, but Real wouldn’t allow any of it. The Champions League holders pressed relentlessly and it never took them long to win the ball and go forward.
In the 14th minute, Vinicius went down under apparent contact from Semedo, but referee Jose Sanchez waved “play on”. VAR was consulted, but there was no change of decision despite the contact from behind becoming obvious.
Five minutes later, Real had a good chance as Benzema charged into the box and went for a one-two with Vinicius, but the youngster turned and fired – over the bar. Barca hit back quickly through Suarez who sent Dembele running down the left again, but the winger’s cross towards the Uruguayan was intercepted by Carvajal. Modrić then almost sent Vazquez through, but Alba was alert.
Minute 23 was passing when Vinicius cleverly poked the ball down the left flank for Benzema to chase, Lenglet was too slow and Benzema whipped it into the box causing a proper scramble at six yards, and only an alert reaction from ter Stegen in front of Vinicius and Vazquez saved the Catalans from going down.
A period of Barca domination followed as Messi won the ball high up, but apart from a pair of potentially dangerous crosses they failed to cause Real any problems. The home team tried a few quick moves down the left through Reguilon and Vinicius, but Semedo defended well with the help of Pique.
But in the 37th minute, Real suddenly created a brilliant chance. Pique took the ball forward and lost it to Casemiro in the middle of the pitch. The Brazilian released Vinicius at full speed through the hole left by Pique. The youngster’s shot was blocked by the backtracking Rakitić but he got it back and put in across for Benzema who had a clear shot at goal from around ten yards, but the French striker slightly mishit it and gave ter Stegen a chance which the goalkeeper took with a fine save.
As Barcelona tried to turn the volume up and went forward in numbers, they lost the ball and Benzema immediately sent Vazquez running down the right. The ball circled the box and reached Vinicius eventually, but Semedo did well again.
Barca sprang alive in the next attack and the referee missed a chance to book Kroos for a malicious foul on Messi. The Argentine superstar kept showing his skill and quick feet, but for large spells it seems his teammates relied on him producing some kind of magic far too much. He would often beat his man and put a teammate in a good position, but Dembele, Suarez and Roberto lacked that kind of spark and got stopped by the resilient Real defence every time.
The Second Half
Los Blancos entered the second period with strong confidence. They took hold of the ball, took it far into the opposition half and kept it there for a long time. Three minutes in, Kroos whipped in a free-kick from the right side and Benzema jumped highest, but his header went just over the bar. Barca retaliated a minute later with Messi taking the free-kick and Pique heading off target.
But for all the dominance and swagger of the players in white, the Blaugrana showed once again how little they need. In the 51st minute, Dembele broke past Carvajal for the first time and pulled it back towards Suarez who beat Ramos to the ball and hit the back of the net, swinging the whole tie in his team’s favor.
Real did not waver, however. They kept attacking relentlessly, but Barcelona weren’t going to let them have it all their own way. The ball was swung into ter Stegen’s box several times before Vazquez brilliantly stopped the run of Messi on a counterattack.
But Barcelona were happy to sit back and look for such opportunity, and one such moment forced Vazquez to react defensively again, but this time he took Lenglet out and earned the first yellow card of the game. On the hour-mark, the winger almost set the score level after being found on the far post by the cross of Reguilon, but Lenglet and Alba put in a joint effort to prevent him from tapping in.
The left-back came close as well, only two minutes later, after Vinicius found his forehead with a lovely cross, but ter Stegen produced a stunning flying save.
Semedo was really having a tough time on that right flank, constantly facing both Vinicius and Reguilon, and the lack of Roberto’s defensive contribution was something Valverde will probably want to talk about in the dressing room.
In the 67th minute, ter Stegen did very well to hold on to a low drive from Carvajal before the feet of Benzema, and sixty seconds later Vinicius absolutely humiliated Pique with a superb dribble before seeing his shot from close range deflected just wide of the post. At that moment, Gareth Bale came on for Vazquez.
But then, lightning struck again. A sudden Barca counterattack saw Dembele running down the right flank, and right infront of the onrushing Suarez, the winger’s ball into six yards was diverted into the net by the unfortunate Varane.
The tie was all but over right then and there with Real now needing three goals, and Casemiro reacted in frustration in the 72nd minute as he mowed Suarez down inside the box. The former Liverpool striker produced a great “Panenka” penalty to put salt on the wounds of Santiago Bernabeu.
Another former Liverpool player entered the fray as Philippe Coutinho replaced Dembele, before Valverde withdrew Suarez for Arturo Vidal.
It was painful to watch the home team in the final 10 minutes. In the 81st minute, Solari sent on Marco Asensio for Vinicius and their last spark of inspiration seemed gone.
They still worked hard, but their focus and desire was completely gone; the state perfectly depicted by Bale in the 83rd minute as he burst into the box and shot off target by what seemed like a mile, before realizing the flag had been raised against him for offside. Asensio was the next to try, but his shot from a tight angle also went far from the target.
Barcelona had no problems whatsoever seeing the game out. They held the ball now with understandable composure, and even looked for a gap in the white lines to potentially exploit, but they weren’t really interested in adding another goal. They got what they came for, and even a last-second 30-yard strike from Kroos couldn’t bring the hosts any consolation as it flew slightly over the bar.
Barcelona certainly deserved to go through to the final. They carried their plans out with more focus and patience, despite coming into the game with an unfavorable result.
The aggregate score (4-1 for the Catalans), however, doesn’t do Real Madrid justice. The 13-time European champions had their moments, and but for lack of luck, the brilliance of ter Stegen and a possible mistake from the officials (including the VAR) in the first half, the end result could have easily been different.
But that’s exactly the catch when playing against a team which has players like Messi, Suarez and Dembele in their ranks. They really don’t need a lot, and they certainly proved that on this occasion against their bitterest foes.
The Blaugrana now await the outcome of the other semifinal where Valencia host Real Betis on Thursday. The first leg ended in a 2-2 draw.
REAL MADRID: Navas 7, Ramos 6.5, Varane 6.5, Carvajal 7, Reguilon 7.5, Casemiro 6.5, Kroos 7, Modrić 6, Vinicius 8, Benzema 7, Vazquez 7.
BARCELONA: Ter Stegen 8.5, Pique 7, Lenglet 7, Semedo 7, Alba 7.5, Busquets 6.5, Rakitić 7, Roberto 6.5, Messi 7.5, Dembele 7.5, Suarez 8.
GOALS: Suarez 50′, Varane (OG) 69′, Suarez (pen.) 73′.
YELLOW CARDS: Vazquez 58′, Busquets 65′, Casemiro 72′, Semedo 81′.
REFEREE: Jose Sanchez.
DATE & VENUE: February 27, 2019, Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Madrid.
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