Real Madrid goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas celebrates with the Spanish… (Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images )
Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo will get all the headlines, of course, but it is goalkeeper Iker Casillas who should be receiving all the praise in the wake of his exploits Wednesday night.
Casillas made several exceptional saves in the last 15 minutes of regulation to deny a rampant Barcelona attack, and Real Madrid went on to win the Copa del Rey, 1-0, after extra time, in front of 52,000 at Valencia, Spain.
The victory ended an 18-year Copa del Rey drought for Real Madrid, which had last won the trophy in 1993. If not for Casillas, that drought would have been extended by at least another year.
First, Spain's World Cup-winning goalkeeper flung himself low to his right to block a fierce shot by Lionel Messi.
Casillas then launched himself high to his left to tip away a shot by winger Pedro.
Finally, the man who is widely regarded as the best in the world at his profession threw himself down and to his left to turn away Andres Iniesta's goal-bound shot with a fingertip save.
Those three moments, all in the space of a furious 15-minute assault by Barcelona, kept Real Madrid in the game and, when Ronaldo completed a fine attacking move in the 13th minute of extra time, the Catalan club knew it was not to be its night.
The decisive goal came on a swift counterattack. Marcelo passed the ball out to Angel di Maria on the left wing and the Argentine's superb cross into the center was met perfectly by Ronaldo, who arched backward and then flung himself forward to power the ball into the corner of the net.
Goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto, who had made an exceptional save in the 90th minute on a shot by Di Maria, was powerless to stop Ronaldo's bullet. It was the Portuguese winger's 42nd goal this season in all competitions.
Casillas, who received the Cup from Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, was beaming afterward.
"We proved to everyone we can beat any team we want," he said.
Both teams had come close to scoring in regulation. Real Madrid midfielder Pepe sent a header crashing off the left post in the first half and Pedro had a goal ruled offside by the narrowest of margins in the second half.
The victory earned Real Madrid its first bit of silverware in three years and its first trophy under Coach Jose Mourinho, who has won something significant in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain.
"It's a very important title and we're going to enjoy it," Ronaldo said in a postgame television interview.
It was the 18th time Real Madrid has won the Copa del Rey. Barcelona has won the trophy 25 times.
Mourinho, criticized for his counterattacking approach in the wake of a 1-1 tie with Barcelona in a league game Saturday, took the opportunity to hit back at critics who had said he cared little about coaching and only about winning titles.
"Thank you," he said. "I like being a coach who wins titles."
The one negative note for Real Madrid was that it again finished the game with 10 men. Di Maria was ejected in the final minute after picking up a second yellow card, this time for a foul on Messi, who has 49 goals this season.
Barcelona, which is all but mathematically certain of winning the Spanish league title for the third year in a row, did receive one bit of welcome news Wednesday.
Iniesta will be able to play in the team's European Champions League semifinal series against Real Madrid after UEFA, European soccer's governing body, decided that he had not intentionally earned himself a yellow card in the quarterfinals and should not therefore be banned for an additional game.
Real Madrid plays host to Barcelona on April 27, with the decisive second game in the Champions League semifinal series in Barcelona on May 3.
"It is always better to win than lose, but we have to recover because that's life," Coach Josep Guardiola said. "Life has its knocks too. Will we pick ourselves up from this? Of course."