Madrid defender Varane shines against Barcelona

It was supposed to be another night featuring the scoring

prowess of rival stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Instead, a little-known 19-year-old French defender named

Raphael Varane single-handedly rescued Real Madrid in a 1-1 draw

with Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals.

Varane started for the short-handed Madrid with both of coach

Jose Mourinho’s first-choice center backs unavailable.

While Barcelona had various scoring chances that they simply

failed to finish off, Varane rose to the occasion and made key

interventions in defense before capping his stellar performance

with a header to equalize nine minutes from the end.

”It’s like a dream come true, incredible to score a goal like

that against Barcelona at just 19,” Varane said. ”Mourinho told

me to give it my all, and after the game my teammates congratulated

me. It wasn’t the best result, but at least it left it wide

open.”

Madrid newspapers celebrated the draw as if it were a victory,

with all the praise going to Varane. Spanish newspaper El Pais ran

the headline ”Barca can’t handle Varane,” while Madrid-friendly

sports daily Marca splashed ”Colossal” over a huge photo of

Varane on the cover of its print edition.

On Thursday, France coach Didier Deschamps selected Varane for

Wednesday’s friendly match against Germany, where he could make his

international debut.

Messi and Ronaldo appeared set to put on another scoring display

to match the goals they netted in their teams’ 2-2 draw the last

time they met in league play in October.

But Messi was always outnumbered in his frustrated attempts to

dribble through the middle of Madrid’s defensive line anchored by

Varane and little-used veteran Ricardo Carvalho.

Ronaldo was also oddly subdued and even lacking in precision

when he did have an excellent chance to score from a cross by

Michael Essien in the second half, breaking his run of scoring

goals in six consecutive meetings with Barcelona.

Messi’s own streak of scoring in 16 consecutive starts for

Barcelona came to a halt in a game where he was aiming to get at

least one goal to equal Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano’s record

of 18 goals in ”clasico” matches.

The four-time world player of the year did come through,

however, in the 50th minute when he intercepted a clearance and

played Cesc Fabregas through to shoot beyond goalkeeper Diego

Lopez.

Varane had already scrambled to block a goal-bound strike by

Xavi Hernandez early on. He then deployed a surprising burst of

quickness to track back and disrupt Fabregas’ encroachment six

minutes after his opener to keep Madrid alive, before showing both

strength and deft use of his height to level late from a corner

kick.

”Varane, as a defender, couldn’t have played better,” said

Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka, speaking in place of Mourinho. ”He

played a perfect game, scoring the goal to draw, clearing balls

from the goal line. His progress is phenomenal. He has his head on

straight and is only going to keep getting better.”

The soft-spoken Varane joined Madrid from French club Lens in

2010 without much fanfare. He made 15 appearances for the team in

his first season, scoring twice.

Halfway through this season, he has played in 18 games for the

defending Spanish league champions to fill in for the injured Pepe

and fellow center back Sergio Ramos, who has just completed a

five-game suspension for insulting a referee.

The second leg of the semifinals will be at the Camp Nou on Feb.

27.

”We left angry,” Barcelona defender Dani Alves said Thursday.

”We didn’t take advantage of the scoring chances we had, but we

know that the series will be decided at home.”