Gareth Bale was the hero with a stunning late winner to secure the Copa del Rey for Real Madrid in a thrilling triumph over Barcelona.
Bale’s memorable match-winning goal was a superb individual effort as he raced 50 yards at full pace before forcing a low shot inside the near post to spark joyous scenes of celebration.
At that point, extra time had seemed inevitable after Marc Bartra’s header cancelled out an opener from Angel Di Maria.
However, the Welshman wrote his own place in the Madrid history books and with each passing game Bale’s Dh507.5m price tag becomes less of a talking point.
Much of the discussion is now focused on Barcelona, and specifically Tata Martino. It was a third straight defeat for the club and with a distinct lack of energy and purpose showed by the Catalan side, it raises further questions about the Argentine’s ability to motivate his team.
Predictably, the game started at a ferocious pace and referee Mateu Lahoz needed just three minutes to show his first yellow card after Isco fouled Neymar.
Once the early hostilities were out of the way, Madrid proceeded to look the most dangerous team and first threatened when Bale twice sparked into life, first receiving Isco’s pass and advancing down the left to fire across the face of goal, before turning neatly in the box and having his shot blocked by Javier Mascherano.
It was no surprise when Madrid took the lead with a goal involving all four of their attacking players.
Isco started it, winning the ball in midfield and finding Bale, who in turn passed to Karim Benzema and the Frenchman sprang Di Maria into space.
He advanced into the area to shoot low left-footed, and the ball squeezed in despite a strong hand from Jose Pinto.
Barcelona had little to offer as they attempted to bounce back, with a low ball across the face of goal from Cesc Fabregas and a Jordi Alba header straight at Iker Casillas the best they could muster.
The quiet Lionel Messi had two attempts towards the end of the first half as Barca started to look more threatening, shooting weakly at Casillas and then dragging a 20- yard effort wide.
Madrid continued to look dangerous, though, and the excellent Di Maria created another opportunity as he cut back a low cross which Benzema dragged wide.
Early in the second half Madrid continued to threaten, with Bale cutting inside from the right and beating two men but stabbing his shot into the side-netting and then firing a fierce volley from the edge of the box narrowly over the bar.
The game continued to flow from end to end with both teams having chances, as Bartra advanced from defence and had a long-range strike awkwardly pushed aside by Casillas while Benzema hit the base of the post with a low shot from the left.
Then came Bartra’s equaliser as he was left unmarked from a Xavi corner and showed great dexterity to stretch awkwardly and loop a superb header into the net.
In the final stages it appeared that Barca were the more likely winners, although Luka Modric nearly won it with a long-range strike against the outside of the post.
Then Bale intervened, racing down the left wing, past Bartra, and showing incredible stamina to maintain his run before stabbing a shot past Pinto at the near post.
Barca fought back hard in three minutes of stoppage time and came agonisingly close to an injury-time leveller as Neymar pounced on an opportunity inside the area, but his fierce strike crashed against the right post and bounced to safety.
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti insists his team can overcome the continued absence of injured top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo when they take on enemies Barcelona in tonight's Copa del Rey final.
Ancelotti, who also has doubts over Marcelo and Sergio Ramos, admitted defeat in his bid to include the portuguese in his squad, with ronaldo’s hamstring injury not healing in time, but believes they still possess enough quality to triumph.
"I found out on Tuesday morning that he won’t be able to play,” said Ancelotti. “But I’m confident in the side, who always react well to injuries.
“We’re losing a player of incredible quality, but his injury has motivated us and will make us run more and play more together.”
The game will offer Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas a chance to return to the big stage after being forced to spend the majority of the season on the sidelines.
Casillas has been left out of Ancelotti’s league XI in favour of Diego lopez, but he remains the first-choice cup goalkeeper and is eager to take the opportunity to add more silverware to his already dazzling collection.
The Madrid captain played a starring role in the last Copa del Rey final between the teams in 2011, which was won 1-0 by Los Blancos with an extra time header from Ronaldo.
Casillas said: “I remember it as a vibrant and attractive game, and very passionate with two sides battling it out. We had a tough season but it was a great game and I would not change a thing.”
Madrid's keeper is unmoved by Barca’s recent struggles, adding: “I’m thinking about my own men, which is the most important thing. There is no need for us to worry about our rivals.”
Beleaguered Barcelona coach Tata Martino has ruefully admitted that even victory in tonight’s Copa del Rey final over Real Madrid will probably not be enough to save his team’s season or turn around perceptions of his managerial abilities.
Martino has come under fire following his team’s exit from the Champions League at the hands of Atletico Madrid and Saturday’s 1-0 La Liga defeat at Granada, which has left them four points behind leaders Atletico.
Those losses came as the latest blows in a fractured and fractious season which has seen the Nou Camp club generate a series of negative headlines off the pitch as well as enduring repeated suggestions that they are a declining force on it.
Responding to last season’s brutal Champions League demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich – a tie that was seen as a watershed moment for Barca’s ‘tiki-taka’ playing style – Martino has regularly tinkered with his team’s tactical approach, including repositioning Lionel Messi on the right wing in an attempt to give him more space.
The team’s recent string of failures has resulted in a torrent of criticism for both the players and Martino, but the Argentine retained his habitual sense of humour as he said: “When I arrived in Barcelona, people were saying I wouldn’t be eating Christmas pudding here – but now I’m getting ready to eat a nice Easter egg.
“Whatever happens, the analysis of my performance will not be positive. That’s the price you pay for being here.”
Martino refused to yield to the temptation of claiming that a trophy tonight would compensate for recent disappointments, adding: “I don’t want to cover my back for what we didn’t achieve in other competitions. This competition has its own merit but it doesn’t mean that we can forget our feelings from the others. I don’t see it as a way of making amends.”
Aside from the tactical role he selects for Messi, Martino has significant defensive problems. With Gerard Pique almost certain to miss out, Marc Bartra struggling to recover from a thigh injury and captain Carles Puyol desperately short of match practice, Martino faces the prospect of fielding a drastically reshaped back four.
Sergio Busquets played at centreback against Granada on Saturday, but considering the lack of form shown by Alex Song he will almost certainly be picked in midfield tonight, with versatile Brazilian, Adriano the most likely replacement in the heart of defence.
Despite his defensive uncertainties, Martino attempted to instil confidence into his team by reminding them of their two league victories over Madrid this season. He said: “We have to think about the good moments we’ve enjoyed in our other games with Madrid. If we play well, we will win.”