By: Joseph Wilson, Associated Press
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Madrid earned a 1-1 draw at Barcelona on Wednesday to take a slim away-goal advantage after the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal.
Lucas Vazquez gave Madrid the lead in the sixth minute during an opening stage dominated by the visitors. But Barcelona eventually established control and forward Malcom equalized after Luis Suarez had hit the post in the 58th.
Lionel Messi stayed on the bench for Barcelona until coming on in the 64th. The Argentine had been doubtful for the match after picking up a right-leg injury on Saturday.
This was the first of three “clasicos” in less than a month. The return leg of the semifinal in Madrid is on Feb. 27, just before their Spanish league game at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on March 3.
In October, Messi missed Barcelona’s 5-1 rout of Madrid in the league, a stinging loss that sealed the fate of former coach Julen Lopetegui.
This time out, Madrid made sure to set a strong tone from the opening, when it maintained possession long enough to get in front.
Manager Santiago Solari also chose youngster Vinicius Junior over Gareth Bale, and Madrid sought to attack down the Brazilian’s left flank from start.
The 18-year-old Vinicius provided the key pass to the visitors’ opening goal when he spotted Karim Benzema at the far post defended by the under-sized Jordi Alba. Benzema won the ball after Alba failed to reel it in, and the Madrid striker sent a low pass across the goalmouth where Vazquez slipped around Clement Lenglet to redirect it home.
As Madrid sat back to protect the advantage, Barcelona began to find holes in its defense. Ivan Rakitic headed Malcom’s free kick off the crossbar in the 32nd, and Suarez drew a one-handed save from goalkeeper Keylor Navas after Malcom bungled his way through three defenders before setting him up on the edge of the box.
The first half finished with Messi tucked in a winter coat, leaning forward anxiously and fidgeting with an empty water bottle.
But before he could come on to loud cheers from the Camp Nou crowd, Malcom pulled the hosts level when he curled a left-foot strike from an angle into the net with Navas off his line.
Lenglet’s long pass to Alba streaking into space forced Navas off his line to strip the ball, but it fell to Suarez who hit the post before Malcom gathered the rebound in and finished it off.
Messi then came on and didn’t show any signs of an injury when he plucked the ball from Casemiro’s boot, raced forward and was fouled by a scrum of Madrid’s defenders near the area. He stayed on the turf to gather himself, before he smashed his free kick into the wall.
Except for one flubbed shot by Bale when goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen was out of position, Madrid spent most of the final 20 minutes bracing itself every time Messi got the ball on his boot.
The strategy meant the game was far from a thriller, but it sent Madrid back home with an edge over its fierce rival.