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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Barcelona trump Madrid 2-1 in Copa quarter-finals first leg

Madrid: Barcelona got the better of archrivals Real Madrid again on Wednesday as Eric Abidal scored a rare goal to give his team a 2-1 win in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

Abidal chested down Lionel Messi's scooped pass inside the area before flicking a left-footed shot under goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the 77th minute for just his second goal with the Catalan club. The Frenchman's first also came in the domestic cup competition.

Just as they did in a 3-1 loss last month, Madrid started well, with Cristiano Ronaldo giving the hosts the lead after 11 minutes from a quick counter.

Ronaldo looked desperate to shake the criticism he has received from sections of his own support in recent weeks, and he made two superb tackles in the opening exchanges, before firing his side ahead.

But Madrid's aggressive defence gave in after Pepe was booked in the 17th, and Barcelona equalized in the 49th when Carles Puyol ran into the area untouched to head in Xavi Hernandez's corner.

The win continued Barcelona's recent domination of Madrid, as the defending league champions picked up their ninth victory in 13 games since Pep Guardiola took over as coach. Madrid's lone win in that stretch came in last year's cup final in April.

Madrid's players' faces became increasingly frustrated in the second half as Barcelona took control of the game once again against their biggest rivals, who often showed nerves when they came into possession of the ball.

The cup holders started defending aggressively early as coach Jose Mourinho inserted Pepe in front of the defence, with Ricardo Carvalho returning for the first time since September to partner Sergio Ramos in front of goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Madrid's few chances came on counter-attacks, including Ronaldo's opener. The Portugal forward netted his fourth career goal against the Catalans after running onto Pepe's long pass and striking a left-footed shot between the legs of back-up keeper Jose Manuel Pinto, who played in place of Victor Valdes. Pinto was the lone change from the team that won in the league at the Santiago Bernabeu in December.

The veteran goalkeeper, only playing because of an agreement with Guardiola to feature in the Copa del Rey, should have blocked the effort, but Ronaldo and Madrid celebrated furiously as the Bernabeu erupted.

The Catalans bounced back, and came within inches of equalising just five minutes later. Casillas was lucky when Alexis Sanchez floated a header off the woodwork, but then kept Messi's shot from sneaking in at near post in the 26th as Barcelona gradually took over the match.

The first half was a fiery affair, and the high tempo of the play resulted in some late tackles. Pepe was at the heart of the drama, firstly earning a booking for an ill-timed challenge on Sergio Busquets, and then going down after a supposed wayward elbow from Gerard Pique, which earned the Barca defender a yellow card.

Despite going into the break a goal down, Barcelona had the best of the first half. Andres Iniesta squandered a decent chance inside the box with a left-footed strike that flashed wide, after Messi saw a near-post shot excellently saved by Casillas.
But it took Guardiola's side just three minutes to draw level after the break through a superb header from Puyol.

Pepe, who was lucky to escape a second yellow card after stamping Messi's left hand, was guilty of letting Puyol slip into the box unmarked to head home the equalizer and his first goal since October 2010.

Barcelona continued to move the ball around, with Iniesta volleying off the crossbar with a 54th-minute shot that came off of Ramos.

Karim Benzema nearly put Madrid ahead again with the team's only second-half opportunity, but the France striker clipped the outside of the left post in the 58th with a glancing header that looked to have Pinto beaten had it been on target.

Mourinho introduced Mesut Oezil and Jose Callejon in the 66th looking for a winner, only to see Messi mark his 300th Barcelona appearance with a perfect pass into the left side of the area to set Abidal free with Casilllas for the winner.

The Argentine, who had been strangely subdued for much of the contest, clipped a sensational pass over the top of the home defence to the Frenchman, who coolly took the ball down on his chest before stabbing past Casillas.

Madrid, similarly to the league match in December, had no response to Barca's comeback, and were unable to create a clear opening in the closing stages. Indeed, the match became more heated, and Carvalho, already on a booking, was fortunate not to see red for a late lunge on Alexis.

This result leaves Barcelona going into the return match with the advantage over Jose Mourinho's side. The second leg takes place next Wednesday at Camp Nou.

Earlier at the San Mames stadium, Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain headed in goals either side of half-time to give Athletic Bilbao a 2-0 victory over Mallorca in the first leg of their series.

Valencia host Levante in a city derby on Thursday to close out the first round of last eight matches, with Espanyol having rallied to beat third-tier Mirandes 3-2 on Tuesday.

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