After Barcelona managed to come from behind at the Santiago Bernabeu to take the first leg of the Copa del Rey 2-1, it looked as though the return fixture at the Camp Nou would be little more than a formality. Madrid have never looked anything like outplaying Barcelona in their head-to-head matches since Pep Guardiola took the reigns at the Catalan club, and there was no reason to expect anything different here.
Needing at least two goals to avoid being knocked out at the quarterfinal stage, Jose Mourinho threw caution to the wind and fielded an impressive attacking lineup spearheaded by Gonzalo Higuain and backed up by the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Kaka. Barcelona countered with... being Barcelona, with Guardiola not looking to change a winning formula.
Much as in the previous two Clasicos, Madrid started out well on top and they should have gone ahead within ten seconds of kickoff. Gerard Pique managed to completely lose the run of Higuain after a Dani Alves backpass, and as a result the striker was able to go one on one against Jose Pinto. Unfortunately for Madrid, he rolled his shot well wide of the post.
Similar was to come - the visitors were well on top for more or less the entire half, with Kaka and Ozil pulling the strings. Barcelona's vaunted midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta* were more or less complete passengers as Madrid's counterattacking game sliced into the hosts. Higuain had another chance to score. Ronaldo shot straight at Pinto when he might have done far better. Ozil sent a blistering effort from fully 40 yards that somehow managed to hit the crossbar, the post and then the line - without crossing it.
*Iniesta was replaced by Pedro on the half hour mark after suffering a hamstring problem.
It was a mix of poor finishing and bad luck for Mourinho's men, and everyone watching had to know that their failure to convert their chances was going to cost them. So it proved just before halftime, where fantastic work by Dani Alves released Lionel Messi for a run right up the middle. As Madrid's defenders congregated around Barcelona's talisman, he deftly flicked the ball past Pepe and to Pedro in space. The resultant first-time finish left Iker Casillas with no chance, and the hosts led against the run of play.
It's been a distressing trend that Clasicos have been dissolving into madness as soon as Barcelona score a goal, and unfortunately it kept up here. Lassana Diarra was fortunate not to be sent off after a horrible hip check on Messi while he was already carrying a booking, Pepe started playacting and the foul mood even spread to Messi himself, who ended up picking up a yellow for kicking out at Pepe (although it's hard to blame him). The Diarra foul was by far the worst and it touched up something of a contretemps, but when the dust cleared we were treated to a moment of absolute beauty.
Dani Alves was hanging out in space on the right when the ball came to him from the free kick. Surveying his options from virtually the corner of the penalty box, the right back stopped, took aim, and blasted a peach of a shot straight into the top corner. Casillas had no chance of stopping it - he's lucky he didn't have his fingers taken off - and suddenly, with halftime looming, Madrid were down 2-0 in the match and 4-1 on aggregate. And that was despite playing pretty well!
More disappointment was on its way for the visitors. They looked beaten for perhaps the first ten minutes after the interval, but fought back well and when Sergio Ramos had the ball in the back of the net for a free kick it seemed as though they'd been handed a lifeline. However, Ramos had given Alves a little bit of the tug, and the fullback went to ground while Ramos was nodding past Pinto, and the goal was immediately - and possibly unjustly - waved off.
Having what must have looked like a legitimate goal disallowed must have been heartbreaking for Madrid's players, but they didn't let their heads get down, continuing to work hard to find a way through Barcelona's defence. It eventually came through the combination of Ozil and Ronaldo, with the German slipping a neat little pass straight into the Portuguese star's path. Ronaldo expertly took the ball past Pinto and slotted home, avoiding Carles Puyol's desperate attempt at a clearance.
Barcelona barely had time to react before the match was level. Xabi Alonso headed an attempted clearance back into the mixer and Madrid substitute Karim Benzema got to the ball before Puyol did, obliterating the defender before sliding an excellent, acrobatic shot into the back of the net to make it 2-2 on the night and 4-3 Barcelona on aggregate. Suddenly, there were ten minutes left for Madrid to find a goal that would take them to the semifinals in a tie that had looked dead and buried.
A tetchy match got even worse as Barcelona started stalling for time while Madrid's impatience got the better of them. The visitors were pushing up for a third goal, leaving space behind them, and that led to deserved bookings for Fabio Coentrao and Pepe as they committed professional fouls to prevent counterattacks. The red card issued to Ramos, on the other hand, was probably a mistake - a fairly innocuous looking aerial challenge with Busquets resulting in the Barcelona man clutching his face and Ramos walking with a second booking.
The sending off drew most of the sting out of the match, and Barcelona, holding a numerical advantage, were mostly able to kill things off. Three minutes of stoppage time came and went, and the game finally ended as a 2-2 draw. So, Barcelona advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals at the expense of Real Madrid, but the losers - unfortunate not to have made it through themselves - might finally have shown that they can actually play on the same pitch as their arch rivals. Jose Mourinho's probably a relatively happy man.