COPA DEL REY

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Varane makes star turn in El Clasico

SCENE STEALER
Varane saved the ball off the line on defense, then scored the equalizer late for Madrid.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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Wednesday night's Copa Clasico at the Estadio Bernabeu was billed as a straight shoot-out between the two team's red-hot attackers. The story was already written, it just lacked a leading man. Over the 90 minutes either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi would prove decisive.

Raphaël Varane did not read the script, and the 19 year old French defender stole the show.

Early, with the game still scoreless, he appeared from nowhere to clear Xavi Hernández’ goal-bound shot from the line. After half-time, with Barca 1-0 ahead through Cesc Fábregas and threatening to pull clear, there were two beautifully timed challenges to deny clear goalscoring opportunities for Messi and Fábregas.

Finally, with just nine minutes remaining, came the towering header to level the game, and the tie ahead of the second leg at the Camp Nou on February 27.

“He could not have played any better,” said Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka afterwards. “He played a perfect game. He is a very level headed kid too, who does everything the right way. He will keep making progress.”

Barca assistant coach Jordi Roura, in charge with Tito Vilanova receiving treatment for cancer in New York, was also full of praise when asked about Varane’s performance.

“I was not surprised,” Roura said. “People were saying Madrid were missing a lot of players, but I knew they have a very good squad. Those that played today showed why they are at Madrid.”

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Roura might not have been surprised, but many onlookers were. Varane was only playing his first clásico due to the suspensions and injuries which deprived Madrid coach José Mourinho of three-quarters of his first-choice defence.

He was partnered in central defence by the experience of veteran Ricardo Carvalho, but that did not always seem a positive in the early stages.

After first conceding the 20 yard free-kick from which Xavi hit the bar, Carvalho, 34, then underhit a back-pass to put keeper Diego López in trouble. The playmaker seemed destined to open the scoring, but Varane raced to the rescue and cleared.

A pattern soon emerged. Barca tried to carefully draw the sting from the game, while Madrid aimed to get stuck in and rattle them. Xabi Alonso was particularly prominent, snapping at the ankles of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and co. One Alonso tackle lead directly to Madrid’s clearest chance of the first half, but Karim Benzema volleyed wide from close range.

The second half began in similar cagey fashion, but then came a mistake. José Callejón, who Mourinho had chosen ahead of Luka Modric due to his better defensive workrate, miscued a clearance straight to Messi. He delicately cushioned the ball first-time to Fábregas, who had time and space to rifle a shot past López.

Barca were ahead and suddenly it was Madrid who looked rattled. Within just eight minutes Mourinho fixed his initial error – hooking Callejón for Modric. Madrid immediately looked more composed in possession. Ronaldo should have equalised, but he badly miscued a close range header.

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With Madrid now needing a goal, there were more openings at the other end. Varane slid in on Fábregas as he sensed a second. Pedro's chip flew agonisingly wide.

Three times Messi threatened, but three times he was stopped - by a linesman's flag, then a strong López hand, finally by Varane nicking the ball from the Argentine’s toe just as he was about to shoot inside the box.

A few moments later the French underage international was deciding things at the other end. Modric fed Özil on the right wing, and the German crossed. Varane soared above Fábregas and Piqué to thump a header to the net.

That made it 1-1, a fair result, and one that left the tie nicely balanced for the return game.

Asked if his side deserved to concede after not killing the game off, Roura preferred to look on the bright-side.

“We had a lot of chances to increase our lead, but I do not talk about punishment,” he said. “A draw at the Bernabéu is always a good result. The second leg is still to come.”

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Varane also spoke afterwards, with reporters clamouring to hear how he felt after announcing his arrival on the biggest of stages. The questions were leading, but the teenager again showed he has an old head on young shoulders.

“It is a game I will always remember, it is a dream at just 19 years old,” he said. “I am happy with my performance and for the team. It was not the best result, but it keeps the tie open.”

That next month's game at the Camp Nou will decide who progresses to the Copa final is surely true, but the game did bring one unarguable conclusion – Madrid has a new star.

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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