Arise, Sir Raphael.
A new star was born at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night as Real Madrid drew 1-1 with Barcelona in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal clash. Not a 'new Ronaldo' or a 'new Messi', but a defensive rock who stole the show in his first ever Clasico appearance - 19-year-old Raphael Varane. If clearances off the line and superb last-ditch tackles were not enough to earn the Frenchman all the plaudits from a thrilling match, his 81st minute equaliser, that gives Madrid every chance of progression, certainly did.
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Varane, a centre-back, should not be the type of player lauded in a Clasico match. That is usually reserved for attacking flair, such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. When defenders grab the headlines in matches between the old foes, it's usually for all the wrong reasons, such as Pepe losing his head and plowing through his Catalan opponents or defenders, or indeed goalkeepers (see Victor Valdes), for making errors at the back. Not this time, not with the supreme talent that former Lens man Varane showed throughout the 90 minutes in a pulsating first leg in the Spanish capital.
His performance was a near faultless one. Madrid played well in the first half, playing a high-pressure, intense game, but Varane was the only player not to give the ball away. His passing from the back was superb, being the most accurate of any Madrid player on the night. It was crisp and controlled and looked like that of a seasoned, world-class professional.
When he wasn't passing, he was tackling, and doing it pretty darn well. The highlight was a brilliant challenge to deny Cesc Fabregas what would have made it 2-0 to Barcelona in the second half. He hauled back ten yards on the Barca goalscorer and produced a superbly-timed tackle to keep his side in the game. Ditto in the first half when he anticipated Xavi's shot towards an open goal and cleared the danger off the line. With some fearing that the art of tackling is dying, tonight Varane dispelled those fears.
His pace is frightening, as Messi and his teammates found out a number of times. The Bernabeu rose to applaud the jet-heeled centre-back when he whisked by Messi and cleared the danger to end one such Barca attack. He doesn't just have physical pace, he has mental pace too. A quick thinker, a step ahead of his teammates and a step ahead of his opponents too. Not many players can claim to have the world's best, in Messi, in their back pocket. Varane couldn't quite claim that accolade, but he was very close. Messi knew it.
All this at the tender age of 19 and in his first Clasico match. A match heaped in pressure. All this with a makeshift Madrid defence lining up against arguably the best attack in the world. The experienced Sergio Ramos suspended and both Pepe and Marcelo out injured -- the latter only fit enough for the bench. A regular midfielder Michael Essien plugging the gap at right back (and doing it pretty well), while regular right back Alvaro Arbeloa moved to the left. Ricardo Carvalho, who probably didn't expect to feature at all for Madrid this season, had a pretty dour game alongside the youngster.
It was tough for Varane, especially with the errors from his more experienced Portuguese centre-back partner. It was Carvalho's error that allowed Fabregas to steal the ball inside the penalty area in the first half and saw Varane race back to hack Xavi's shot off the line. The former Chelsea man had a torrid time all night and he could have seen red had the referee spotted a handball with Messi through on goal just minutes before Varane struck the leveller. Good thing for Carvalho he had the young, less experienced Frenchman clearing up his mess.
At the other end of the pitch, his goal was a bullet. Good movement inside the box and a towering leap to beat three Barcelona defenders to the ball and rifle his header into the back of the net. It was what Madrid deserved in an entertaining and even Clasico.
Both sides had good chances and Barcelona may feel they should have wrapped the game up with great chances as they led 1-0. Pedro missed the best chance for the visitors and the Catalans were made to pay for their mistakes. It wasn't all one-way traffic, however, with Ronaldo being thwarted twice in the second half with Los Blancos searching for a leveller. First, he got caught in two minds from a superb Essien cross and neither headed it nor struck it with his foot as the ball went harmlessly wide from close range. Then, Gerard Pique produced a brilliant last-ditch tackle to deny the Portuguese from a brilliant Mesut Ozil cross. The challenge was almost -- almost -- as good as Varane's. A night for the defenders, indeed.
On the whole, the performance will lift Madrid at just the right time. They came flying out of the traps early on, putting relentless pressure on each and every Barcelona player -- something highlighted in the very first minute when Ronaldo won the ball, beat Pique on the edge of the box and was fouled. It wasn't consistent pressure throughout the 90 minutes, but Jose Mourinho's men picked up that same intensity at important spells in the match and Barcelona knew they were in a game.
Mourinho did not try anything fancy with his tactics or team selection -- his hand was pretty much forced thanks to injuries and suspensions. But Madrid's structure was much more solid. Each player stayed in their respective positions rather than float in and out of areas of the pitch as is the norm, and the emphasis was on a high-energy pressing game. Force the errors in Barcelona's half and pick up the pieces. It worked for the most part. The midfield engine room of the ever-impressive Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso was superb but special mention too for Essien, who showed signs of the Essien of old, albeit at fullback, rampaging up and down the length of the pitch.
Diego Lopez, too, deserves praise. Thrown straight in for his first start since rejoining the club from Sevilla, the goalkeeper did not do much wrong and the things he had to do, he did well. He looked assured, alert (such as when he came racing from his line to thwart Messi in the second half) and looks to be a better option than Antonio Adan. Expect to see Lopez start until Iker Casillas's return from injury.
One negative was the form of Karim Benzema in front of goal. While one Frenchman in Varane was excelling at the back, Benzema struggled up top. He was given the ammunition, missing a couple of good chances, one in each half, and probably should have been hauled off earlier than he was for Gonzalo Higuain. Jose Callejon will look back on his clearance to Messi in the build-up to Fabregas's goal and wish he'd have cleared it the other way, although he did well to get back and intercept the danger in the first place. You win some, you lose some.
Madrid can take plenty from the match. No doubt Barcelona will settle for the draw, despite missing the chances to extend their lead at 1-0 up, with the home advantage to come in the second leg at the end of next month. However, they will also be aware that Madrid has enjoyed a good run of form in Catalonia of late. Madrid has lost just two of its last six matches at the Camp Nou, with both of those losses coming in two-legged Spanish Super Cup matches, but have lost three and won just one of their last six matches on home soil.
Los Cules will also have to break down the defensive wall that is Varane. A star in the making. It will be interesting to see whether Mourinho keeps faith with him when both Ramos and Pepe return to action. Ramos will be back for the return leg and is likely to forge a new centre-back pairing with the Frenchman, but Pepe is still likely to be sidelined for the trip to the Camp Nou. Whatever the outcome, Madrid has unearthed a real diamond for the future.
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