Real Madrid’s 1-1 Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg draw at Barcelona gave backbone to the club’s recent revival under Santiago Solari, and they will be out to complete their revenge mission in three weeks’ time, writes Michael Hincks from the Nou Camp.
What a difference four months can make.
Real’s 5-1 humiliation at the Nou Camp in October not only resulted in the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, but highlighted a startling gulf in class between the two sides.
Without Zinedine Zidane at the helm, and without Cristiano Ronaldo up front, Real were looking a far cry from the side that, back in May, had lifted the Champions League trophy for the third year in a row.
Solari was handed the tough task of revitalising a humbled squad, and though they continued to stutter somewhat, fast forward to January and there were signs Real were getting back to their best.
But the momentum of five wins in a row would count for nothing if it all fell apart at the Nou Camp on Wednesday evening. Two Clasicos at the Bernabeu may have been on the horizon, but first Real had to right the wrongs from their previous visit – and they managed to do just that.
Rather than capitulate, Real shot out of the blocks. A fast-paced start led to a deserved opener after just six minutes, with Lucas Vazquez steering in from Karim Benzema’s cross and silencing the home fans, who were still getting over the fact captain Lionel Messi was only fit to start on the bench.
Had Real shown more composure in front of goal, they could have gone further ahead, but Vinicius Junior did not have the finishing to match what was an age-defyingly confident Clasico debut from the 18-year-old.
Real had to ride their luck, particularly when Ivan Rakitic’s header struck the bar, but they also looked equally as dangerous on the break.
The frequent chants urging Messi to take to the field further outlined how different this match was from October – the Argentine sat out that match entirely due to a broken arm, and was relatively unmissed as Luis Suarez ably led the way with a hat-trick.
A goalkeeping and defensive lapse allowed Barca to level in the Copa clash on the night, with Keylor Navas nowhere to be seen as Sergio Ramos almost ushered Malcom’s effort in at the near post, but after the equaliser, and even once Messi was introduced, Real did not whimper.
The visitors even ended the match in the ascendancy, with substitute Gareth Bale spurning a great chance to take a one-goal lead to the Bernabeu.
What Wednesday showed was that this was a Real unwilling to roll over, and in what was their biggest test to date under Solari, it gave a level of authenticity to their recent revival.
For Solari, though, this was no time to look back when lining the draw up against their 5-1 defeat under Lopetegui. “Comparisons are always unsuccessful, but this team works very seriously, we saw that,” he said after the match.
That serious work will continue when Real look to extend their six-match unbeaten run in the Madrid derby at Atletico on Saturday, while they must wait to host Barca in the return leg on February 26.
The pair will then meet once more at the Bernabeu in the league just three days later. Revenge is in Real’s grasp, but a level of redemption has already been achieved.