Lionel Messi scored one of the best goals in Champions League history last night to settle one of the competition's ugliest matches.
When he turned in Ibrahim Afellay's cross at the near post to put Barcelona 1-0 it was in keeping with a scrappy eyesore of a match, but when he slalomed through the home team's defence to double the lead he restored the watching world's faith in football.
Jose Mourinho was sent off and will not take his place in the dugout next Tuesday for a game he has already written off. He risked a lengthy Uefa ban by suggesting that Pep Guardiola had never won a Champions League cleanly, calling Barça's win a scandal. In truth the real scandal was that such an eagerly anticipated match was largely devoid of football until Messi delivered twice at the end to leave his team 90 minutes from the final.
After the cantankerous press conferences with their spiteful recriminations and expletive-filled retaliations perhaps such an ill-tempered affair was par for the course. Teams so often end up resembling their coaches and this was as niggly as the tit-for-tat from Guardiola and Mourinho beforehand.
Rarely has so much talent been brought together in just two teams and never has it been so wasted on stifling tactics, time-wasting, late challenges and off-the-ball incidents, with both teams guilty.
Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper Jose Pinto was sent off at half-time after he and Alvaro Arbeloa hit out at each other en route to the tunnel. Pepe was then shown a red card for a wild challenge on Dani Alves after the break with the theatrical reaction to the foul ensuring the card was red and not yellow, as it should have been.
But worse than the cards, and worse than the fact that Mourinho has now finished his last five games against Barcelona with 10 men, was the complete lack of sparkling football. Before the red cards, Messi was swamped, Cristiano Ronaldo smothered, and football the loser.
Both sets of fans had reacted to the fiery pre-match exchanges between their respective coaches. A huge banner was draped over one end of the Bernabeu bearing the slogan: "We live for you, beat them for us", and at the other end 2,000 travelling Barcelona fans did their best to respond.
After their rants 24 hours earlier – directed at each other – Mourinho and Guardiola shook hands in the tunnel with the Real Madrid manager waiting for his Barça counterpart before battle began. But that was the beginning and end of cordial relations.
Barcelona's first real chance came when Messi somehow wriggled into space just in front of Real's back four and sent a teasing pass through to Xavi who had only the advancing Iker Casillas to beat. Casillas got down smartly to his left to block the shot.
Barça had enjoyed 82 per cent of possession in the first 15 minutes but as they advanced so they left more space behind and Real looked increasingly dangerous when they broke. But still the game resembled Internazionale's tortuous second-leg performance last season at the Nou Camp far more than their impressive 3-1 first-leg win.
Sergio Ramos had a half-chance from a free-kick but in open play only Marcelo's energy down the left gave Barcelona a problem and when he was up-ended by David Villa, Xabi Alonso had the chance to send over a testing free-kick but failed to clear the first man. Cristiano Ronaldo took over free-kick duties but struck Messi in the wall as the quality remained poor and then the tempers began to flare. Arbeloa flattened Pedro off the ball and the Barcelona bench swarmed to the touchline.
The referee consulted both the fourth official and his linesman and the former Liverpool man was booked. Alves was then cautioned for bringing down Angel di Maria a minute before the break and the trouble continued when the half-time whistle was blown.
As the two sets of players headed down the tunnel Seydou Keita sought out Arbeloa. There was pushing and shoving between the two and as Pinto intervened, Arbeloa lashed out at him and was lucky to escape punishment from referee Wolfgang Stark, who did spot Pinto's retaliation and sent him off.
Stark had remained on the touchline as Arbeloa, Keita and Pinto clashed and his non-involvement allowed the situation to escalate with several members of each bench wading in to join an unsightly melee that Mourinho said afterwards he had not seen, having already arrived in the dressing room to make plans for the second period.
His reaction to the lack of first-half entertainment was to take off Real's greatest entertainer, Mesut Ozil, and bring on Emmanuel Adebayor to join Ronaldo up front. The Portuguese came into the game having scored three times in Champions League semi-finals and twice in his last two games against Barcelona but the return of Carles Puyol made life more difficult for him and it was the Barcelona captain who blocked his first chance in the second half .
Messi then raced away from Ramos who pulled him down to earn a booking that rules him out of the second leg. In the spirit of giving and receiving Mascherano then went through Pepe and joined Ramos in the book.
And Pepe himself was the next player in trouble as he went in high on Alves. The Brazilian full-back lay motionless on the turf as players from both sides surrounded the referee. Alves was carried off and Pepe sent off as Mourinho fumed on the sidelines and earned himself a red too.
It took Barça 16 minutes to take full advantage of their extra man when substitute Afellay beat Marcelo for pace and crossed for Messi to scored his 51st goal of the season.
And there were four minutes left when the Argentine picked the ball up midway inside Real's half, jinked his way through the heart of the home side's defence before curling a shot past Casillas to make it 2-0.
Man of the match Messi.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee W Stark (Germany).
Tuesday 3 May Barcelona (2) v Real Madrid (0)
Wednesday 4 May Manchester United (2) v Schalke (0)
Saturday 28 May Final, Wembley Stadium