Champions League semi-final, second legBarcelona hold off Real Madrid threat to reach Champions League final
Barcelona won 3-1 on aggregate
The last instalment of a four-match, 18-day scorpion dance that became nastier by the hour was a proper contest in which Real Madrid recovered their attacking urges but Barcelona advanced to a probable meeting with Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley. "This has been one of the most beautiful nights I have ever lived," said Pep Guardiola, the Barça coach.
The last act was the sweetest: the bumps, on the pitch, for Eric Abidal, the Barcelona defender who underwent an operation to remove a tumour on his liver in March and came on three minutes into added time of this 1-1 draw. It was a rare familial moment in a tie that delivered one last controversy: Real's vehement claim last night that Gonzalo Higuaín's second-half goal was wrongly disallowed.
Histrionics, allegations of racism and propaganda onslaughts were the backdrop to a thundery night in Catalonia as Andrés Iniesta set up Pedro to extend Barcelona's 2-0 first-leg lead and Marcelo replied for Madrid, who left here blaming bad refereeing for their defeat.
"[José] Mourinho is right – after the game in Madrid he said it was impossible for us to go forward. You've seen that. It's been impossible for us to go forward," said Aitor Karanka, the Real assistant coach. At least all 11 Madrid players stayed on the pitch for once. Lionel Messi was forced to endure a succession of meaty challenges and five Real players were booked. But for the first time in five clásicos there was no red card for Mourinho's macho team.
So Barcelona are coming to London and United are within 90 minutes of earning a shot at revenge for the 2009 defeat in Rome. Messi remains the biggest threat but Xavi Hernández and Iniesta will also try to put United back on "the carousel" – Sir Alex Ferguson's colourful phrase to describe the Barcelona passing system.
When the Real Madrid team coach rolled up , Mourinho was not among its passengers. His punishment for being sent to the stands in last week's first leg was a touchline ban at his old place of work, where he has gone from "Translator" to anti-Christ. He missed an absorbing struggle.
Barcelona say they offered him a perch in the presidential box, but its proximity to seats from where Barça supporters might have abused him persuaded the Real manager his hotel room was a better bet. Many Real fans also judged the sofa to be a better option, judging by the empty seats in the small Madrid enclosure, just below the heavens, in this vast arena.
Already two goals down from the home game, Mourinho was forced to abandon the hedgehog formation that had so offended Real Madrid purists in the Bernabéu. Out went Mesut Ozil, who is showing signs of wear at the end of his first season in La Liga, and in came Kaká, in place of the suspended Pepe, and Higuaín, chosen ahead of Emmanuel Adebayor.
To appease Real Madrid, Uefa sent the refereeing godfather, Pierluigi Collina, to oversee the performance of Franck De Bleeckere, the Belgian official picked out by Mourinho as one of the five who had delivered major decisions against his teams. Uefa's thinking was that De Bleeckere would be less likely to indulge any subconscious resentment against Mourinho for that criticism with his boss looking down from the stands. And who would dare risk Collina's displeasure?
De Bleeckere's first significant act was to book Ricardo Carvalho after 12 minutes for a trip on Messi as the world's best player was in full flight.
But if the foul suggested a repeat of Madrid's strong-arm tactics last week, their formation was more positive and their movement more dynamic. The Bernabéu blockade was dismantled, by necessity, in favour of an approach far closer the sacred Real tradition. Ronaldo was especially tenacious, attacking Barça's right flank and hounding Dani Alves.
An exhilarating first half of sweeping counterattacks brought Messi to the fore around the half-hour mark, as the scorer of 52 goals this season worked his way into goalscoring positions with exquisite footwork, and Iker Casillas was drawn into a series of acrobatic saves. As the teams paused for breath at the interval, Mourinho was doubtless hitting the mini-bar.
After the break latent tensions from the first leg resurfaced. Gerard Piqué brushed Ronaldo, who fell, knocking over Mascherano, who might have intercepted Higuaín before the Argentina striker found the net. No goal. With Pedro's sharply dispatched finish on 53 minutes from Iniesta's pass, Real went for broke, sending on Adebayor in place of Higuaín and withdrawing Kaká, the game's third most expensive player, who has yet to recover his old potency after a long run of injuries. At 3-0 down on aggregate Real finally found the net when Angel Di María's blast struck the post and rebounded to Marcelo for the tap-in.
It was time for Mourinho to reach for the hotel scribbling pad to plan for the future and Barcelona to celebrate their superiority in a four-game series that threatened to relocate to the politics pages, and leaves a pile of disciplinary issues still to face.