By Kris Voakes
It was a game of high quality and great intrigue, with some of the sport’s greatest attacking masterminds doing their thing. But the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg between Real Madrid and Barcelona will ultimately be remembered for Raphael Varane’s magnificent display, which not only kept the Blancos in the tie, but also announced him as a defender of the highest calibre.
Never before had the Frenchman made it further than the bench on Clasico night, but he used the occasion to show just what he is capable of in the pressure cooker atmosphere of one of football’s most monumental match-ups. In a day when defending is crying out for a new exponent of some of its greatest arts, Varane displayed a little bit of everything in a perfect 90-minute performance. And as if that wasn’t enough, he grabbed the equaliser which sends his side to Camp Nou in four weeks’ time with the scores level.
With a great show of anticipation and speed, the 19-year-old made up for a mistake by his experienced centre-back partner Ricardo Carvalho to keep the score at 0-0 in the first half, clearing Xavi’s shot off the line when a goal seemed inevitable. Then there was a magnificent, textbook last-ditch tackle on Barca goalscorer Cesc Fabregas when a 2-0 deficit appeared a cast-iron certainty.
He had enough in the bank to deny the world’s best player too. As Lionel Messi burst into the penalty area, most of Madrid’s defence looked ill-equipped to stop him, but Varane came in with another excellent tackle to whip the ball away from the Argentine. Yet he was not done there.
With just over nine minutes remaining, he capped the perfect Clasico debut with what could prove to be a priceless equaliser. From Mesut Ozil’s right-wing free-kick, the former Lens man climbed high above the Barcelona defence to head past Jose Pinto in the visitors’ goal. It was only fitting that it was Varane who had the last word.
Such a supreme individual performance cannot go unrewarded. Right now, Jose Mourinho has little say in how his defence is made up thanks to the lack of availability of many of his key names. But when the likes of Pepe and Sergio Ramos are back, there will be a big decision to be made.
Varane has proven already in his Madrid career to be more than capable, but Wednesday night’s showing confirms that he can be a fine alternative to his more famous colleagues. If Mourinho wants to continue making this Blancos defence a more solid unit, then the extended use of Varane must be very high on his list of options. Sergio Ramos can easily slot in at right-back, while Pepe will have a real fight on his hands judging by the Frenchman’s current form.
Varane is arguably the only shining light in a time when young defenders are few and far between, and proved at the Bernabeu that he can deliver against the very best. A long run in the Real Madrid side is the very least he deserves after one of the greatest Clasico debuts in many a year.
Follow Kris Voakes on