A goal fit to decide any cup final decided the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday, as Gareth Balebroke Barcelona hearts as Real Madrid lifted the trophy following a 2-1 win.
Real led early on thanks to Angel di Maria’s smart finish but were pegged back midway through the second half thanks to Marc Bartra’s pinpoint header; setting up a fraught finish in a Clasico that had taken time to spark into life.
It was a breathtaking display of athleticism and calm under pressure, as the world record signing justified his large transfer fee by delivering Carlo Ancelotti his first piece of silverware as Real boss.
Barcelona desperately searched for an equaliser that would force extra-time, but after Neymar’s close-range effort clattered the post they were destined to end up disappointed.
With injuries ensuring Ronaldo, Marcelo, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol (among many others) were all unavailable both managers shuffled their options, with Gerardo Martino forced to pair Javier Mascherano and the young Bartra in central defence.
Ancelotti, meanwhile, opted to play Isco in midfield, with Di Maria supporting Bale and Karim Benzema in attack.
And it was the Argentine who broke the deadlock in the 11th minute, following a somewhat subdued start to the contest. There was a hint of offside—and Pinto could arguably have done better with his save—but it was a clinical finish. Di Maria spotted some space on the right and his probing run was found by Benzema, as he fended off the recovering Jordi Alba before driving his shot across Pinto and inside the far post.
Real looked the more settled side and continued to create the better chances, with Benzema, Bale and Modric all forcing Pinto into continued action. Barcelona, however, continued to frustrate, with Lionel Messi’s subdued display and wayward shooting seeming to sum up many of their struggles.
In the second half, however, Martino’s side made some adjustments and, particularly when Pedro arrived for Cesc Fabregas, seemed to find a greater attacking threat.
Just past the hour-mark they would get the equaliser but perhaps not by the manner expected; Bartra heading in at the far post after peeling around the back to meet Xavi’s corner.
That set the stage for an enthralling final 20 minutes, with both sides confident that they had the formula to get the decisive third goal.
Ultimately, though, the game was decided by the two most expensive players on the pitch. The most expensive player, officially at least, got the winner—a strike of sublime quality.
Bartra appeared to have Bale covered when the ball made its way to the winger out on the left, but Bale kicked the ball beyond his defender and then ran well off the pitch in order to get past him, returning in time to collect the ball and make a beeline for the box.
Bartra, attempting to recover, knew he could not afford to touch his rival inside the box, and Bale had just enough time to balance himself and find the gap between Pinto’s legs.
Ronaldo, watching from the stands in a suit and baseball cap, led the applause, as Real players ran to celebrate what immediately felt like the defining moment.
The drama was not over, even as Ancelotti rung the changes to bring on any defensive-minded player he could find on his bench. In the end the best chance fell to Neymar just moments before the end of normal time; the Brazilian receiving the ball from Iniesta and Xavi before poking a left-footed shot around the onrushing Casillas.
Both men could only watch on in suspense, as the ball rebounded away off the far post and back towards the goalkeeper, who gathered and cleared—although not before patting the post that had saved him.
Bale had decided this final. The woodwork had helped confirm it. And Casillas lifted the trophy.