You could feel the vacuum, feel it. As 94,000 people went from jeering to silence. Whoosh. Cristiano Ronaldo had just taken a 13th minute penalty at the north end of Camp Nou, just as he’d done while wearing white in 2008.
Then, he missed for Manchester United, but his side went through to the final. Against Barcelona on Tuesday, he scored – the sixth time in succession in Camp Nou. And his side went through to the final. He was the game’s best player as Madrid outclassed a strangely anaemic Barca to win 3-1 and reach the Copa del Rey final.
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, whose side play Sevilla in tonight’s second semi-final, claims people are bored of clasicos. With an average of five a season in recent years, there have been enough to bring on fatigue. Each match is accompanied by a biased melee of pernicious bile and vitriol, yet each remains compelling, unpredictable. Did you expect Madrid to race into a 3-0 lead?
The Barcelona fans didn’t stay silent for long. After 17 minutes, cries for independence rang around the stadium. The numbers joining in were nothing like they were earlier in the season. A giant flag was raised, in English. 'Catalonia. Europe's Next State' it stated optimistically. The 600 away fans countered that with a wall of Spanish flags, no love lost.
A mis-hit shot from Cesc Fabregas after 30 minutes summed up Barca’s current malaise. They’re not playing well and their coach Tito Vilanova isn’t around to intervene. Everyone understands that he has to be in New York to receive cancer treatment, but his side have dipped in his absence. The notion that anyone can coach Messi, Xavi, Iniesta et al has been banished.
Opponents are having more success; Barca refuse to change a system which has served them so well and they’ve not kept a clean sheet in 12 matches. Lionel Messi has taken a mid-season break – Barcelona had just one shot on goal in Milan last week, and that from 25 yards out.
Barca fans can be ultra critical, but they got behind their side on Wednesday; if their team needs support then it’s now. Fans hanker for David Villa to come off the bench. He’s become a peripheral figure, sure to depart in the summer, yet he’s still Barca’s second top scorer.
Their mood contrasts sharply with that at Madrid, who entertain the Catalans in another clasico, a league game this Saturday.
Raphael Varane, still only 19 and the best player in the first leg of the cup tie, is an outstanding prospect in a defence which was more solid than Barca’s. Hindsight makes judgements easy, but it’s still surprising that Barca didn’t sign a central defender in the summer.
Varane headed his side’s third goal and jumped so high people initially thought it was the man who’d scored the other two, Ronaldo. When the third went in, Mourinho dropped his guard and went crazy on the touchline.
The away fans did the same, throwing a lit flare into the home fans below. Idiots.
For Sir Alex Ferguson, watching in the stands, it was a refresher of how good Madrid can be, especially on the counter-attack. They look revitalised, confident and dangerous. The United – Madrid game next Tuesday is the most eagerly awaited in world football so far this year.
Mourinho could have gloated to the media, instead he sent injured goalkeeper Iker Casillas, with whom he fell out with. Casillas talked of “Cristiano” being “phenomenal” and, tellingly, said that Barca had not made Madrid suffer.
“Cristiano is vital for us,” said Casillas. “Right now he’s in phenomenal form and gives his maximum. Hopefully this is a turning point to have won this tie and to make it better it was against Barcelona.”
Asked about the second leg at Old Trafford, the Madrid and Spain captain said: “We have a 1-1 draw from the first leg against United and we have to score and keep a clean sheet. It will be difficult as they also know how to play and their ground is tough to play at. We have to transfer what we did here at Camp Nou to Old Trafford.”
Barca’s stand-in coach Jordi Roura may look like Gerard Depardieu, but he seems uncomfortable in the limelight.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, is not, and thinks the victory “gives us enormous confidence for the game against Manchester United.”
Barcelona are 12 points clear at the top of the league and yet they’ve again faltered in February. They’ve usually come out of the slump and certainly have the players to get back up after two knock-downs, but their fans are worried and, in newspaper polls, the majority don’t expect them to go through against Milan.
“Our focus is back on the league now,” said Roura. “That’s an important title for us. And then, of course, Milan in the Champions League.”
“This is a tough blow,” opined Fabregas. “Madrid were very strong at the counter-attack tonight. Now we have to recover.”
Madrid will find out who their Copa del Rey final opponents are tonight, where neighbours Atletico take a 2-1 lead into the second leg at Sevilla. As for Barcelona, they need to find their mojo again.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.