There was no Lionel Messi until the second half, no Gareth Bale either, and there was no winner here but there were two Brazilians making their clásico debuts and making their mark. Vinícius Júnior, 18, made Real Madrid’s opening goal and Malcom, 21, scored Barcelona’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou. If one might have been expected – excitement is building at the Bernabéu at the emergence of a new star with Vinícius – the other was not: Malcom’s goal, scored early in the second half, was celebrated with relief as well as joy, a sense of vindication in his roar.
His first months in Barcelona have not been easy. His first half here was not, either. But there he was when it mattered, scoring the goal that means this cup semi-final hangs in the balance going into the second leg at the Bernabéu in a month’s time. In the end, with Messi injured and playing only half an hour, some of it at half-speed, there was no way of separating these sides. It was not the most special of clásicos, but for two Brazilians it would prove a special night.
Vinícius has led Madrid’s recent revival – enthusiasm running through everything he does, some light amid the darkness – and he led them here too. Five minutes was all it took for Madrid to go a goal up. Vinícius ran at Nélson
Semedo for the second time, shifting the ball onto his right foot and sending a long cross over the head of Jordi Alba, who appeared to misjudge the flight of the ball. The waiting Karim Benzema controlled and pulled it back for Lucas Vázquez, getting in before Clemént Lenglet, to finish from close range.
At every stage of the move, Barcelona had arrived a moment too late and in the game’s opening stages that patter repeated all over the pitch. There was a tentativeness about them that Madrid took advantage of: Santiago Solari’s plan to rob and run, reinforced by the early lead, was reaping rewards. Ivan Rakitic was the first man caught out, soon followed by Philippe Coutinho and then Sergio Busquets. Each time, they found Vinícius going at them.
First, Gerard Piqué had to dive to block Vinícius. Next, Vinícus scuffed a shot, supplied by Benzema. And then, dashing up the right, his pull-back just evaded Benzema. All three opportunities came from Barcelona losing possession. The latter had come as a warning – a reminder of Madrid’s threat at a time when Barcelona had started to wrest back some control. Another pass from Vinícius saw Toni Kroos shoot over.
Malcom should have put Barcelona level, played clean though by Luis Suárez on 20 minutes, only to shoot straight at Keylor Navas. You could almost feel the insecurity, but Malcom did not hide. In fact, he was the player Barcelona sought most, finding space in a familiar place: behind Marcelo. The ball went out to him repeatedly, but did not come back in. Willing to run, he was not always able to find the telling pass, and at times was exasperating, but what the Catalans did create largely came from him. On the other side, Coutinho did precious little, timid again.
Piqué headed Malcom’s clipped free-kick just over; Navas blocked Semedo after Malcom had slipped him in; and then another free-kick was headed against the bar by Ivan Rakitic. Ten minutes from half time, he wriggled free in the area and found Suárez, whose shot was saved superbly by Navas. When it opened up for him soon after, he gave the ball away to groans – and yet Malcom would delight them soon enough.
Almost as if the sight of Messi warming up, by popular demand, had activated everyone, Lenglet’s long pass sent Alba sprinting into the area. Navas got to him, just, but the ball ran free to Suárez whose superb first-time shot from a tight angle hit the near post, running across to Malcom. He controlled and struck past four men into the net by the other post, celebrating wildly.
Barcelona were level, and then Messi was on, entering the fray with Arturo Vidal, Casemiro and Bale. Messi was immediately involved, running at Madrid, and the ball was Barcelona’s. Messi won a free-kick that he bent into the wall, then almost squirmed free by the touchline.
But if the game felt different, opportunities were few, and Malcom and Vinícius were gone. Messi appeared to be choosing his moments, perhaps playing with the handbrake on, and the best chance actually fell to Bale 10 minutes from time, when Benzema found him after Marc André ter Stegen failed to clear fully. Inside the area, the goalkeeper gone, the Welshman was slow to get in a position to shot and was closed down by Arthur. Piqué had to dive in to block another shot, this time from Kroos. At the other end, Sergio Ramos dived too, stopping Messi as the final minute slipped away. There will be at least 90 more.