Madrid defender Varane shines against Barcelona
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -It was supposed to be another night featuring the scoring prowess of rival stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Instead, a little-known 19-year-old French defender named Raphael Varane single-handedly rescued Real Madrid in a 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals.
Varane started for the short-handed Madrid with both of coach Jose Mourinho's first-choice center backs unavailable.
While Barcelona had various scoring chances that they simply failed to finish off, Varane rose to the occasion and made key interventions in defense before capping his stellar performance with a header to equalize nine minutes from the end.
"It's like a dream come true, incredible to score a goal like that against Barcelona at just 19,'' Varane said. "Mourinho told me to give it my all, and after the game my teammates congratulated me. It wasn't the best result, but at least it left it wide open.''
Madrid newspapers celebrated the draw as if it were a victory, with all the praise going to Varane. Spanish newspaper El Pais ran the headline "Barca can't handle Varane,'' while Madrid-friendly sports daily Marca splashed "Colossal'' over a huge photo of Varane on the cover of its print edition.
Messi and Ronaldo appeared set to put on another scoring display to match the goals they netted in their teams' 2-2 draw the last time they met in league play in October.
But Messi was always outnumbered in his frustrated attempts to dribble through the middle of Madrid's defensive line anchored by Varane and little-used veteran Ricardo Carvalho.
Ronaldo was also oddly subdued and even lacking in precision when he did have an excellent chance to score from a cross by Michael Essien in the second half, breaking his run of scoring goals in six consecutive meetings with Barcelona.
Messi's own streak of scoring in 16 consecutive starts for Barcelona came to a halt in a game where he was aiming to get at least one goal to equal Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano's record of 18 goals in "clasico'' matches.
The four-time world player of the year did come through, however, in the 50th minute when he intercepted a clearance and played Cesc Fabregas through to shoot beyond goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
Varane had already scrambled to block a goal-bound strike by Xavi Hernandez early on. He then deployed a surprising burst of quickness to track back and disrupt Fabregas' encroachment six minutes after his opener to keep Madrid alive, before showing both strength and deft use of his height to level late from a corner kick.
"Varane, as a defender, couldn't have played better,'' said Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka, speaking in place of Mourinho. "He played a perfect game, scoring the goal to draw, clearing balls from the goal line. His progress is phenomenal. He has his head on straight and is only going to keep getting better.''
The soft-spoken Varane joined Madrid from French club Lens in 2010 without much fanfare. He made 15 appearances for the team in his first season, scoring twice.
Halfway through this season, he has played in 18 games for the defending Spanish league champions to fill in for the injured Pepe and fellow center back Sergio Ramos, who has just completed a five-game suspension for insulting a referee.
The second leg of the semifinals will be at the Camp Nou on Feb. 27.
"We left angry,'' Barcelona defender Dani Alves said Thursday. "We didn't take advantage of the scoring chances we had, but we know that the series will be decided at home.''
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