MADRID: Eder Militao’s own goal handed a depleted Barcelona a surprise 1-0 away victory over Real Madrid in a stormy Copa del Rey semi-final first leg on Thursday.
The Catalans arrived on the back of two consecutive defeats and without an injured trio of key players — top scorer Robert Lewandowski, key midfielder Pedri and explosive winger Ousmane Dembele.
After their Europa League elimination by Manchester United last week and a first ever loss against La Liga minnows Almeria, Madrid fans smelled blood, but left bitterly frustrated.
Militao deflected a rebound into his own goal after 26 minutes to split the teams and hand Barcelona the edge ahead of the second leg on April 5 at Camp Nou.
The hosts had more of the ball but failed to muster a shot on target, while Barcelona defended well.
“This was the game we wanted to play — not with this result, but it gives us confidence for the second leg,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti told reporters.
“We did not let Barcelona do what they wanted, that’s good for us, and we just have to repeat it (at Camp Nou).”
Asked if Barcelona deserved to win or not, Ancelotti said it was clear his team deserved more.
“No, that is obvious, we had chances, but I think that it was one of Madrid’s best games in terms of pressing high,” added Ancelotti.
“It was a bit strange, their way of playing, but they have learned very well, it’s a very solid team defensively.”
Barcelona lined up with Marcos Alonso out of position at centre-back, after Andreas Christensen was only deemed fit enough to start on the bench.
Sergio Busquets made his 46th Clasico appearance, overtaking former Real Madrid and Barcelona greats Sergio Ramos and Lionel Messi to set a new record.
Despite Barcelona’s seven-point lead over champions Madrid in La Liga, many, including Barca coach Xavi Hernandez, had Madrid as favourites.
Los Blancos have not won the trophy since 2014 and pushed Barca back early on, with Benzema scoring a goal ruled out for offside.
A handful of Madrid fans had protested outside the Santiago Bernabeu about Barca’s involvement in the “Negreira case” — the Catalan club paying a former refereeing chief for advice until 2018.
The temperature rose considerably when Vinicius Junior was booked midway through the first half for wrestling Frenkie de Jong to the ground.
Vinicius remonstrated vociferously with the referee, and Madrid may still have been distracted by the argument moments later when Barcelona took the lead.
The goal came against the run of play, created by Ferran Torres, who slipped through Franck Kessie, just onside.
Thibaut Courtois saved the Ivorian midfielder’s low shot but the ball rebounded off Militao, into his own net, with Nacho trying and failing to hack it clear.
Madrid players and supporters reacted angrily as Barcelona midfielder Gavi got away with smashing into Militao, but the hosts struggled to carve out chances.
Barcelona held their lead until the break comfortably, with supporters whistling the officials as they walked towards the tunnel.
With Carlo Ancelotti’s side unable to muster a shot on target against an underwhelming Barcelona side, perhaps some of the home supporters’ frustration aimed at the referee was misplaced.
Madrid struggled to connect with Benzema, isolated and unable to influence the game.
Record Copa winners Barcelona should have doubled their lead with 20 minutes remaining when Torres cut the ball back to Kessie, but his goal-bound shot was blocked by his own team-mate, Ansu Fati.
Rodrygo whipped a shot wide for Madrid in the final stages as they remained unable to test Ter Stegen, despite Barcelona’s deficiencies.
More traditional roles were reversed as Madrid had more of the ball but Barcelona defended solidly and took the advantage back home.
“Today they dominated us with the ball, but there are other aspects in the game, sometimes the opponent forces you to this,” admitted Xavi.
“Madrid can dominate you, it’s hard to get the ball off (Toni) Kroos and (Luka) Modric, but defence is part of the game.”