Araújo leads defensive Barcelona to win at Madrid in Copa

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, centre, controls the ball as he is challenged by Barcelona's Ronald Araujo, right, and Barcelona's Jules Kounde during the Spanish Copa del Rey semi final, first leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona built its reputation on dominating possession and trusting its attack to overwhelm opponents.

But with its leading scorers injured, Xavi Hernández’s side turned to a rarely seen “Plan B” at the Santiago Bernabéu against Real Madrid on Thursday.

The plan worked — despite Madrid boasting a formidable attack of its own — as Barcelona relied on its defense to frustrate its bitter rival. The Catalan club earned a hard-fought 1-0 advantage in the Copa del Rey semifinals.

“They made us play that way, we have not betrayed our style of play,” Xavi said after the first leg. “The plan was to have lengthy possession, keep the action at their end, win one-on-one situations… We didn’t play well with the ball, but without it we were superb.”

Barcelona was missing top scorer Robert Lewandowski, key playmaker Pedri, and winger Ousmane Dembélé, who have combined for 40 goals this campaign. So, instead, it found strength in a defense led by a stellar Ronald Araújo with strong performances by Jules Koundé, Marcos Alonso and Alejandro Balde.

The game’s only goal came in the 26th minute after Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga lost the ball near midfield. Franck Kessie rushed forward and his shot ricocheted off Madrid’s Éder Militão and into the net. Madrid’s potent attack, led by Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior, which had dealt Liverpool a 5-2 thrashing the previous week, had plenty of time to respond but Barcelona’s back line held firm and didn’t concede the hosts a single shot on goal.

“Today our midfielders didn’t have control of the game,” Xavi said. “We suffered more than we should have and had to run a lot, but we have to value our defensive effort… Vinícius (usually) creates six scoring opportunities a game, today he had none.”

To mark Vinícius, Xavi shifted Araújo once again over to the right side of his defense as he had done for Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup Final in January.

The result was the same: Araújo succeeded where so many defenders have failed.

Araújo has emerged as one of the very few players who can keep Vinícius in check. The Brazil winger normally torments opposing right backs with his speed, dribbling and flare for the unexpected. Araújo has matched that with his own pace and sense of anticipation. And the Uruguay international, who usually plays as a central defender, does so without any of the hard fouls that other defenders turn to when desperate to slow Vinícius down. The duel promises to become a classic “clásico” matchup with Araújo 23 years old and Vinícius 22.

Kessie and Frankie de Jong also played their part as all-terrain midfielders. Kessie came very close to adding a second goal late, only for his on-target shot to be inadvertently blocked by teammate Ansu Fati.

The return leg is on April 5, giving ample time for Lewandowski, Pedri and Dembélé to recover from their injuries. Before that decider, Barcelona and Madrid will also meet in the Spanish league on March 19 at Camp Nou.

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said he was not concerned by his team’s performance up front despite having over 60% possession against the usually ball-hungry Barcelona.

“This defeat will not cause any after-effects because we are satisfied with our performance,” Ancelotti said. “It’s very difficult to control the game against Barcelona as we did today. We are aware that we have to come back, but it wouldn’t be the first time.”