Barcelona: Goals from Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale helped Real Madrid to a 2-1 win over Barcelona and helped them to play their hands on the Copa del Rey.
Neymar and Cesc Fabregas were preferred to play alongside Messi at Mestalla, while Marc Bartra was deemed fit enough to start at centre-back. With Cristiano Ronaldo injured for Los Blancos, Isco came into the attack, and Sergio Ramos was put back in the XI after the medical start passed him to play.
Tata Martino’s men had won the two League Clasicos this term, but three years ago, at this very stadium, the capital outfit overcame their Catalan rivals 1-0 in the Cup final.
The omens were mixed, but on the night, it was the Camp Nou outfit who made the brighter start, breaking into the Madrid area within the first five minutes. Neymar’s run was stopped by Dani Carvajal though, and despite calls for a penalty, play was waved on.
The first real effort though, came just moments later at the opposite end. A pass from Isco found Bale, but with the Welshman blazing through on goal, he slashed his effort wide of the right-hand post from a tight angle. Carlo Ancelotti’s men were on the crest of a wave, and they made that count after 11 minutes. A swift breakaway saw Karim Benzema play in Di Maria, who took the ball to the left-hand side of the area, and struck low past Jose Pinto and into the back of the net for the opening goal.
Los Merengues seemed happy to sit back and wait to hit Barca on the break, and that almost caught them out on the half hour mark, but Neymar’s header from 12 yards out was well wide of Iker Casillas’ post. That counter attacking option always seemed to be on though, and just before half time Madrid almost doubled their lead. A lung-busting run from Bale saw him get to the byline and cut back for Isco, but the former Malaga man’s effort was stopped superbly by Jordi Alba with a sliding block.
After the break, still the Santiago Bernabeu side went looking for that second goal. And they almost found it through their €100m man on 49 minutes. Bale drifted past Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano, but his right foot effort struck the side netting with Pinto seemingly beaten.
And the former Spurs forward was at it again soon after that, as Mascherano’s weak header landed at the feet of the 24-year-old. His pot-shot however, flew just over the goalkeeper’s bar.
The Blaugrana were struggling to break down a solid Madrid backline, and that was highlighted by their best chance, as Bartra stepped out of defence and unleashed a swerving 35-yarder. Casillas though, was equalled to it and palmed the effort wide.
And it was the youngster who, unbelievably, did get the equaliser on 69 minutes. A corner from Andres Iniesta found the centre-back, and he headed calmly past the goalkeeper from 12 yards.
The ex-Tottenham midfielder may have missed the chance, but it was his teammate in north London who eventually did break the deadlock with five minutes remaining. Bale, on the left-hand side, used his electric pace to beat Bartra, galloped into the area, and poked past the onrushing Pinto for one of the most important goals in his career. Agencies