It was billed as the clash of the cup: Real Madrid, firing on all cylinders after a perfect January, hosting Atlético Madrid, unbeaten since an away loss at Espanyol at October and the current league leader. The attack with the highest scoring rate in the division against the least-breached defense and a rematch of last year's final, when Atlético finally ended a 14-year barren run against its city rival. A 50-50 encounter, and a meeting of two of the greatest footballing minds in the game at the moment: Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone, the architect of Atlético's most promising season since the double triumph of 1995-96.
As it transpired, Ancelotti and Real won the duel with consummate ease against a blunted foe. The home side's 3-0 win, coupled with other considerations, has practically settled the tie after 90 minutes. Real beat Atlético by playing like Atlético, which has been bent to the sheer force of Simeone's will and collectively plays like the former Argentina enforcer did; first to every tackle and with no little enthusiasm.
On Wednesday in the Bernabéu it was Real that played with more urgency, more discipline and ultimately with more shape than a disjointed Atlético. No side in Spain or Europe has managed to score three against Simeone's side this season and only Barcelona had so far escaped with the goals- against column maintained at zero.
Luck played its part, but Real thoroughly deserved its good fortune. Pepe opened the scoring on 17 minutes, hammering a shot from distance that was bound to trouble a fan in the stands until it hit Atleti's Emilio Insúa and corkscrewed past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Atlético might have had a penalty a few minutes later but the referee did not see Álvaro Arbeloa haul Diego Costa to the floor by his shirt in the area. Arbeloa later stamped on the back of the Hispano-Brazilian's heel, one of a series of provocations to the fiery forward that would ultimately lead to Costa's name going in the book for reacting to a tackle, incurring a suspension for the return leg next week.
Rabble-rouser Pepe seemed to be under instruction to get under Diego Costa's skin
Pepe seemed to be under instruction to get under Costa's skin, an all-too-easy assignment for the Portuguese rabble-rouser, who revels in confrontation. Jesé scored Real's second, the youngster finishing neatly from Ángel di María's clever pass in the second half.
Although good fortune abandoned the visitor — Diego Godín could have made it 2-1 just before Di María hit another deflected goal to sew up the tie — Real made its own with its bold attacking approach. "We did everything well," said Ancelotti after the match. "We are much more compact now. My players did a very good job but Atlético is a strong, aggressive side that will do everything it can to recover the tie. We will have to prepare well, as we did for this game."
"Chances?" asked Simeone. "There are 90 minutes of soccer and we have to play. Madrid played a very good game and we have to congratulate them. We couldn't combine on the night. We tried everything but today we just couldn't get it right." With Costa out and David Villa recovering from injury, Atlético has a mountain to climb.
In the second semifinal, Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 2-0 through Sergio Busquets and an own goal of spectacular ineptitude as keeper Eñaut Zubikarai chested in Gorka Elustondo's inexplicable attempt to clear across the face of goal. It was doubly demoralizing in terms of the score and the fact that until that point Zubikarai had been his team's savior with a string of assured saves as Barcelona fired in 27 shots to La Real's three.