French youngster Raphael Varane headed in a late goal as Real Madrid salvaged a 1-1 draw against bitter rivals Barcelona in their Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg clash on Wednesday.
Cesc Fabregas had given Barça the lead at the Santiago Bernabeu in a game his side looked to be running away with until the leveller. Varane was Madrid's star all evening, clearing off the line in the first-half and making countless other defensive interventions.
Jose Mourinho decided to partner Varane and Ricardo Carvalho in the centre of a depleted defence, with Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao out through suspension and Pepe injured. At right back, Michael Essien was favoured over Marcelo and Diego Lopez was called up for his debut in goal after he signed from Sevilla last Friday to replace the injured Iker Casillas.
Barça had only one change to make, with Jose Manuel Pinto stepping in goal for Victor Valdes as is normal for the Catalan club in Copa del Rey fixtures. The reserve keeper was immediately called into action to block a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick after Gerard Pique saw a yellow card on 40 seconds for tripping the Portuguese star on the edge of the area. He had to be alert again on nine minutes to tip over an Essien cross as Madrid were looking the more direct and dangerous of the two teams in the opening minutes.
The pace was fast and furious and Ronaldo just failed to connect with a Karim Benzema cross in front of goal immediately before Xavi curled a free-kick onto the crossbar at the other end. The best chance of the first-half fell to Barca on 22 minutes when Fabregas anticipated a poor back pass from Ricardo Carvalho and teed up Xavi whose shot was blocked on the line by Raphael Varane.
At the start of the second period Benzema exchanged passes with Ronaldo before shooting high. Soon after Madrid's attack, Barça went ahead when Jose Callejon's clearance fell to Lionel Messi whose quick thinking pass to Fabregas left the former Arsenal captain with an easy finish on 50 minutes.
Fabregas nearly had another tally, but Varane stepped in with a last-gap intervention and prevented Barça from extending their lead. Gerard Pique was quicker than Ronaldo to a cross when Madrid did break on the counter-attack on 67 minutes and it was Fabregas again at the other end who shot just over three minutes later.
Fabregas then released Pedro Rodriguez who should have doubled the lead on his 200th appearance for Barça, but he badly miscued his shot from close range. Just when it looked like Barça would leave with victory, Varane popped up to head home a Mesut Ozil cross with nine minutes to go.
Lopez had to save well from Jordi Alba in the closing minutes but a draw was a fair result in the end with all to play for at the Camp Nou on 27 February.