MADRID -- An Eder Militao own-goal gave Barcelona a narrow 1-0 Clasico win over Real Madrid in their Copa del Rey semifinal first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday.
Karim Benzema had a goal ruled out -- straying offside to receive Vinicius Junior's cross -- before Barca took the lead in the 26th minute. Midfielder Franck Kessie was played in by Ferran Torres, and when his shot was saved by Thibaut Courtois, the ball rebounded off defender Militao and into the net.
Dani Carvajal wasted a great chance to level before half-time, volleying over the bar, and Vinicius saw an effort deflected wide after the break, while Barca were later unlucky not to add a second when substitute Ansu Fati blocked Kessie's goal-bound shot.
1. First-leg win keeps Barca's double hopes on track
This Clasico -- the first of three in 34 days, with the teams set to meet in LaLiga on March 19 before the Copa return leg at Camp Nou on April 5 -- was a chance for league leaders Barcelona to increase their prospects of a domestic double, and for Real Madrid to spark their own belief in a dramatic late-season turnaround. A 1-0 win for Barca is the narrowest of leads, but it puts them in the driver's seat to reach the final -- especially given that they will play the second leg at home -- and denies Madrid the possibility to build some momentum as they look to overturn not only this semifinal deficit, but also the seven-point gap they need to close on Barca at the top of the LaLiga table.
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Recent Clasicos have been noted for their unpredictability and comprehensive wins for both sides, which haven't always reflected the bigger picture. Xavi's Barca won 4-0 at the Bernabeu last season as Madrid marched on to the league title, before Madrid secured a comprehensive 3-1 win here in October, and Barca took the Spanish Supercopa by the same scoreline in January.
This was a much tighter, nervier game of few clear chances, as Madrid's dominance of possession came up against Barcelona's defensive solidity. With Robert Lewandowski, Pedri and Ousmane Dembele all absent, Barca's win -- however it was achieved -- is another morale boost for them, and an opportunity missed for Madrid.
2. Araujo stars in Barca's rock-solid defence
Ronald Araujo might just be the best defender in Spain this season, and this performance was yet more proof that when the Uruguay international starts for Barca -- whether at centre-back or at right-back, where he played on Thursday -- there's a good chance they'll come out on top.
Araujo went toe-to-toe with one of the most terrifying wide forwards anywhere in Vinicius -- a nightmare task for even the most mobile of defenders -- and did an exceptional job of keeping him quiet, even looking to relish the contest. He frequently stepped inside to help out centre-backs Jules Kounde and Marcos Alonso alongside him, and even managed to get forward, driving upfield in the second half.
Barca's miserly backline, led by goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen in career-best form, has been key to their domestic success so far this season. With Araujo in the side, that looks unlikely to change anytime soon.
3. A Madrid side short of cutting edge
In Spain, they talk about pegada: a team's attacking firepower, its ability to deliver a knockout punch. For all of Real Madrid's dominance of many aspects of the game here -- they had 65% possession, 885 touches to Barca's 598, and 13 shots -- they rarely felt like troubling Ter Stegen's goal. None of those shots were on target. An xG of 0.73 tells a more accurate story.
Vinicius was their most dangerous threat but was well marshalled by Araujo, while Benzema was quiet after his disallowed goal, and Rodrygo and youngster Alvaro Rodriguez offered little after coming on as second-half substitutes. Too often they were frustrated by a well-organised Barcelona team who looked almost happy to concede possession and pounce on the counterattack.
The Copa del Rey isn't Real Madrid's priority in this or any season -- that's always the Champions League, followed by LaLiga -- and a semifinal elimination wouldn't be the end of the world, but a win here would have been a handy reminder that the domestic season isn't over yet. As it is, Madrid must look to cut the gap in the league and secure their spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, before trying to turn this tie around at Camp Nou in a month's time.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Ronald Araujo, Barcelona. The consensus pick for man of the match. Dominated the game from right-back.
BEST: Franck Kessie, Barcelona. Made the only goal of the game, and had one of his best nights in a Barca shirt so far.
BEST: Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona. Increasingly influential in midfield.
WORST: Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid. Did well until he gave the ball away in a dangerous position to allow Barca to score.
WORST: Ansu Fati, Barcelona. Got in the way of Kessie's goalbound shot, which could have finished the tie.
WORST: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid. Another quiet night in an inconsistent season.
Highlights and notable moments
It wasn't pretty, but it counts just the same.
FRANK KESSIE OPENS THE SCORING FOR BARCELONA! 😮 pic.twitter.com/sdDyDtXg0J— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 2, 2023
After the match: What the players/managers said
Sergio Busquets: "The win is important but we still have the return leg. We mustn't get carried away. We competed well and we worked as a team when we didn't have the ball, but despite not having the ball much in their half, we didn't suffer too much. The important thing is the result, which gives us a chance to get to the final. ... We might have a minimal advantage with the result, but it isn't definitive."
Courtois: "We dominated the game. They were quite defensive. We were unlucky to concede the goal. It was hard for us to get shots on goal, and to create chances. We played a good game, in control, but we didn't find the chance. ... They defended well, they concede few goals. We didn't get the final ball. They defended well. ... It won't change or affect the return leg, or the league."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
- Busquets's 46th career El Clasico appearance breaks a tie with Sergio Ramos and Lionel Messi for the most all-time.
- ESPN Stats & Information has access to 685 competitive games played by Barcelona in the past 15 seasons. This is the first game in which they had less than 40% possession.
- After scoring in their first 29 games this season across all competitions, Madrid have been shut out for the third time in their past ten games, two of which have been at home.
Real Madrid: Los Blancos take to the league on Sunday, when they head to Andalusia to take on Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarin (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
Barcelona: The Catalans resume LaLiga play on Sunday when they welcome relegation-threatened Valencia to the Camp Nou (10:15 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).