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Cesc Fabregas struck what may prove a priceless away goal as holder Barcelona drew 1-1 at depleted rival Real Madrid in an entertaining and closely fought King's Cup semifinal first leg on Wednesday.
Lionel Messi sent Fabregas clear five minutes after halftime at an electric Bernabeu stadium enjoying the second Clasico of the season, and the Spain midfielder finished with ease past Real goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
Barca missed several clear chances to extend its lead before Real centerback Raphael Varane crowned a fine performance by leaping to head home an equalizer from a Mesut Ozil center seven minutes from time.
Despite having a slight advantage for the second leg at the Nou Camp at the end of next month, Barca may live to regret not scoring more against a Real team missing regular keeper and captain Iker Casillas and Pepe through injury and the suspended Sergio Ramos.
"These games are always very tough," Fabregas said.
"Considering how the march went, the result could have been more favorable from our point of view.
"But we will be at home for the return leg in front of our own fans. We are in a good rhythm and having a spectacular season."
In a game pitting a host of Spain teammates against each other and billed as the latest showdown between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both sides created moments of danger in an ultimately goal-less first half.
It was the 223rd meeting between Spain's dominant clubs and their 31st clash in the King's Cup.
Barca knocked Real out in the quarterfinals last season on its way to winning the trophy for a record-extending 26th time, and Real beat Barca 1-0 in the 2011 final for its 18th Cup triumph.
A relieved Real
With the second leg almost a month away, Madrid, which trails Barca by 15 points in the league, will be relieved to avoid defeat and will now looks to the Champions League last-16 first-leg against Manchester United in the same stadium in less than two weeks.
Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka highlighted Varane's performance.
"He had a great game, after saving us a few times he gets the equalizer and it will do him good. He is only 19 and this will be good for his progress with us," he said.
With Barca coach Tito Vilanova in New York receiving cancer treatment, assistant Jordi Roura took the reins and thought his side could have won it.
"We had lots of chances to increase our lead, but a draw is always a good result in Madrid. I said before, it is probable the tie will be decided in Barcelona, and I was right," he said.
The biggest surprise of the night was that neither Messi, who had scored at least once in his past 16 starts for Barca, or Ronaldo were on the scoresheet.
Messi is one goal short of Alfredo Di Stefano's record for Clasico matches of 18, while Ronaldo's record run of scoring in six straight matches between Real and Barca came to an end.
The winner of the tie will play Atletico Madrid or Sevilla, who meet on Thursday at Atletico's Calderon stadium, in May's final.
(China Daily 02/01/2013 page24)