Madrid, Jan 31 (IANS) In a game where all the build-up had been written about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, young Real Madrid defender Rafael Varane stole the show in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final here.
The 19-year-old, who was only playing because of Sergio Ramos' suspension and injury to Pepe, gave a defensive display way beyond his years and scored the goal that gave his side a 1-1 draw at home against FC Barcelona, who had threatened to run away with the game in a second half where they let Madrid off the hook Wednesday, reports Xinhua.
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho included goalkeeper Diego Lopez in his side, just five days after his signing from Sevilla while Antonio Adan dropped back to the substitutes' bench.
Barcelona, who were guided by assistant coach Jordi Roura as Tito Vilanova is still receiving treatment for his cancer, fielded their strongest side with the habitual inclusion of Jose Pinto in goal.
The game kicked off with Madrid pressing high in the Barcelona half looking to force error and Ronaldo forced a fine save from Pinto from a free kick in the second minute.
Mourinho's side were working hard trying to stop Barca's passing game and it wasn't until the 12th minute that Barca started to move the ball with confidence. Jordi Alba fired well wide before Xavi Hernandez saw a free kick bounce off the Madrid bar from a free kick.
He then went even closer after a dreadful backpass from Ricardo Carvalho which gave the ball away but youngster Varene got back to make a miraculous goal-line clearance.
That is not to say it was all Barca in a game highlighting the contrasting styles of the two sides. Every misplaced Barca pass saw Madrid look to spear forward. Karim Benzema hit the outside of the post and a last-ditch challenge from Dani Alves stopped what looked like a certain goal in what was an increasingly fascinating and frantic encounter.
Barca took the lead five minutes after the break as an error from Jose Callejon allowed Messi to set up Cesc Fabregas, who beat Diego with a low right foot shot. The goal left Madrid looking groggy and Varene, who was having a fine night, saved a second with a great last gasp challenge to deny Fabregas.
Mourinho replaced Callejon with Luka Modric as Madrid looked for more control and Higuain was on soon after to add punch in attack.
Ronaldo headed just wide for Madrid and was denied by a fine challenge Pique but led by the outstanding Andres Iniesta, Barca had them chasing shadows for long periods, although too often the final pass just went astray. Fabregas also wasted a good chance by firing over after being set up by Alves.
Pedro Rodriguez should have made it 2-0 on the break but fired wide with just Diego to beat.
Barca could have had the game and probably a place in the final in the bag but with nine minutes remaining Varene headed home from the edge of the six-yard box from a Mesut Ozil cross following a short corner.
It was a fitting way to cap an excellent display although Madrid had Diego to thank for another late save to deny full back Alba.