Real Madrid beat Valencia 2-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal, with goals from Benzema and a dubious own goal by Guardado.
Far from being a vintage performance by los Blancos, they still seemed to recover some of the intensity they lacked in their last encounter against Osasuna.
Cristiano Ronaldo was back from suspension and looked to make an immediate impact on the game, firing a free kick just inches wide of Guaita’s right post in the first minute.
However, straight from the start Valencia showed their bold approach to the game, proving the most fluid team in attack. As a result, they had the best chances in the early stages of the game.
In the ninth minute Rami was left unmarked on the penalty box for a free header, only to fire it straight at Iker Casillas. Just a few minutes later, Tino Costa would unleash one of the typical long-range shots that gave him his nickname, “The Bombardier.” Casillas flew across his goal to punch the ball wide and clear the danger.
One minute later Roberto Soldado drew another good save from Casillas with a close-range header. In the 22nd minute, Soldado, almost on the halfway line, broke the offside trap and sped off for a one-on-one with the Madrid goalkeeper. Seconds later, he was pulled back by the referee after his linesman wrongly flagged the Valencia striker offside.
We were just midway through the first half, and Valencia had already had four clear chances to score. Jonas would add a fifth in the 33rd minute with a shot from just outside the left side of the box. Casillas was grateful to see the ball sail just a few inches over his bar; had it been on target there would have been little he could have done.
Three minutes later, Jonas made Casillas work again, this time forcing an excellent block from close range. The goalkeeper’s intervention was the first touch of the counterattack that would result in Real Madrid’s first goal.
The trio of Michael Essien, Karim Benzema and Sami Khedira immediately sprinted upfield and overwhelmed the backtracking Valencia defense. Essien opened the ball to Khedira in the left channel, who delivered it first-time to Benzema charging down the centre. The Frenchman made no mistake and buried the ball past Guaita.
Valencia would have one more chance before the break, with Tino Costa firing a low shot just wide of Casillas’ post. However, Valencia went into the dressing room empty-handed and one goal down, despite having more possession, more shots and more shots on target than Real Madrid.
The second half started similar to the first, despite a certain drop in the intensity of play. Valencia still controlled the game but were creating less chances.
This in part may have come from José Mourinho’s half-time decision to replace Marcelo by Fabio Coentrao on the left flank of his defense, the area that had seemed most vulnerable in the first 45 minutes.
In the 59th minute, in an almost identical situation as that in the first half, Soldado was once again denied a one-on-one with Casillas by the linesman's flag. Again the replays showed the striker clearly onside.
Just seven minutes later, history repeated itself for the third time in the match, as Soldado was wrongly flagged offside, this time at much closer range. In frustration, he took his shot anyway and it bounced off Casillas’ crossbar.
A minute later and from a similar position, Soldado found the space to strike a powerful shot at Madrid’s goal. Casillas went down quickly and only managed to parry the ball straight into Jonas’ path, only for the Brazilian to inexplicably fire wide of the empty goal.
That was perhaps the turning point of the game, if not the entire tie. Just six minutes later, Madrid substitute Angel di María, delivered a ball for Coentrao to cross in from the left side of Valencia’s box. The Portuguese’s low cross deflected first on Guardado and then possibly off Gonzalo Higuain’s hand and rolled into the net.
That was the blow that crushed Valencia’s hopes, and the 20 minutes that followed were clearly to Madrid’s advantage. The only reason the scoreline did not change any further was a spectacular late performance from Valencia goalkeeper Vicente Guaita.
On two occasions, Guaita denied Ronaldo in chances on which you would have bet anything on the certainty of the Portuguese finishing them off. The first came after Higuain unselfishly put the ball on a plate for Ronaldo after a counterattack. The second was of Ronaldo’s own making, as he caught Adel Rami in possession on the edge of his box, only for Guaita’s fingertips to deny what seemed an inevitable goal.
Valencia will feel extremely hard done by with the result, and a number of refereeing decisions went against them. However, if they show this intensity and quality in next week’s match at the Mestalla, then Guaita’s heroics might yet prove to be valuable.