Malcom is no Messi but he saves Barça in Copa Clásico
Real Madrid dominated the first half and went ahead early through Lucas Vázquez, but Barcelona came back in the second to level through Malcom. Messi came off the bench in the second 45.
Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: match report
It was the second Clásico in the post-Ronaldo era at Real Madrid and the second of the season without Messi in Barcelona's starting XI but what the game was missing in star power, it made up for in cageyness as the two sides sides both struggled and looked dominant for spells.
Real Madrid were the first side to show their teeth with some high pressure on Barcelona's midfield and defense. Vinicius started brightly and Barcelona struggled to get their foot on the ball. With Benzema and the Brazilian, who became the youngest player to start a Clásico for Madrid this century, in fine form, they were causing problems for a particularly lethargic Barca defense.
That early start could not have gotten any better when Vinicius crossed deep to the back post after six minutes and Jordi Alba tried to head clear. The ball cleared the top of his dome and Benzema took a lovely touch before delivering a low pass to Lucas Vazquez. He side-footed home and the Camp Nou was stunned.
Messi and Dembélé had been ruled out and Ernesto Valverde decided to start with Malcom despite suggestions Carles Aleña would be the man to fill his exceptionally large boots. It was the Brazilian tasked with that and he almost single-handledly pulled Barcelona back into it.
After that first goal, Real Madrid backed off by design and because Barcelona weren't going to settle for not dominating possession at home with or without Lionel Messi.
Malcom was torturing Marcelo down the wing and Barcelona kept whipping the ball out to him having figured out where they could get the upper hand. He delivered a couple of frees he had won himself from that wing and Barcelona nearly had their response from those whips. Rakitic rattled the crossbar with a header and Real Madrid were looking increasingly unsteady.
Real Madrid looked plenty dangerous on the break though with Vinicius skipping around and over potential tacklers and that offered them some respite from Barcelona's assault.
The second half was much of the same with Barcelona looking increasingly ambitious. They had the equaliser on 57 minutes when Jordi Alba was sent through on goal. Keylor Navas came out and put an end to his run, and almost put an end to Alba, with a wild-looking challenge (Alba was booked after for explaining to Mateu Lahoz just how dangerous he thought it was). The ball fell to Luis Suárez and he tried to curl one home only to see it hit the post.
The man of the match for Barcelona was on hand to slam home despite having a difficult angle and three players to navigate the ball through. Malcom is no Messi but his finish levelled matters for the home side as he started showing signs of the player they thought they were fighting for when they pipped Roma to signing during the summer.
Those chanting 'Messi' in the stands got their wish after the goal and Barcelona tried their best to get the winner.
It wasn't to be though as Messi tried to combine with Suárez a couple of time to no avail. The Argentine looked good during his cameo but he might have been protecting himself more than usual with a couple of uncharacteristic touches in enemy territory.
Gareth Bale whipped a couple of dangerous crosses into the box during his spell but the resulting shots were either blocked by Barcelona or spurned by his teammates.
It leaves the second leg wide open with a presumably fit Messi to start and with Barcelona needing an away goal to give themselves a chance.
Lucas Vazquez said they had a "bittersweet taste in their mouths" after the game. In the end, though, both teams can feel both unlucky and a little relieved not to have lost in a gritty, cagey affair at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night with more of the same promised in three weeks time.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid Copa del Rey live: match updates
Barcelona vs Real Madrid El Clasico live: preview
This could be dubbed the 'mystery Clásico' because there are plenty of unknowns heading into the game. Will Lionel Messi play? He's in the squad but this could be the one deciding factor as to how this game pans out. Will Vinicius, Lucas Vazquez or Gareth Bale play? This could be the making or breaking of Real Madrid and Solari has some further decisions to make too. With congested fixture lists and the Champions League on the horizon along with a Madrid derby for los Blancos, both sides might even take it slightly easier than they usually would in El Clásico. The debate leading up to the tie has been whether Real Madrid have been hard done by with the timing of it and their LaLiga games before and after the games. The claim that the fixture-makers are against them has been debunked but we will have to wait and see if their Sunday night game has averse effects on their pyshical and mental preparedness.
Barcelona are missing Ousmane Dembélé despite his efforts to overcome an illness he picked up recently. The French attacker trained on Tuesday and recovered sufficiently from an ankle injury that has kept him out for the last couple of weeks but he was struck with a bout of tonsilitis and was left off Ernesto Valverde's squad list for the game. Lionel Messi did train after getting a blow to the leg against Valencia that remained sore for a couple of days afterwards and a decision will be made on whether he plays or not just before kick-off. Santiago Solari says "it is better when the best players play" but he secretly might be hoping that the little Argentine genius is not on the field come 21:00.
Regarding whether Vinicius plays or not, Tite has sent someone to watch him as he continues to develop at breakneck speed since being jetissoned into the team by Santiago Solari. Not that this will make any difference to Solari's team selection but given recent performances and his importance on the counter, the Brazilian might just get the nod ahead of Bale on the left. Solari says Bale likes to play on the left but Vinicius is there and Vazquez was rested for the Alavés game meaning he could start on the right as a better defensive wide midfield option. Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal will return to the back line and Sergio Reguilón could very well usurp Marcelo as the Copa left-back of choice by keeping his place. Toni Kroos, rested against Alavés, will also return and Casemiro should remain in the starting eleven despite some good performances by Marcos Llorente in his stead not long ago. Meanwhile, Isco is in the squad but could still be left off Solari's final list and Brahim, Odriozola and Fede Valverde have all been left out with more names to be included on the culled list before kick-off.