Cristiano Ronaldo gave the defending champions the lead after 11 minutes, but second-half goals from Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal mean Barca will feel confident of avenging their defeat to Real in last season’s final when they play the second leg at the Camp Nou next week.
It was the third time Barca had beaten Real already this season, following victory in the second leg of the season-opening Super Copa and then a 3-1 win at the Bernabeu in their first league clash of the campaign back in November.
As is now customary in El Clasico, Real manager Jose Mourinho picked Pepe in midfield, and the Portugal defender revelled in the latest instalment of his ongoing battle with Barca’s Sergio Busquets to be crowned this grand old fixture’s most irksome agitator.
Mourinho also started Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain together for only the fourth time in their Real careers as he set his side up to hit Barca on the break.
Ronaldo has come in for some criticism from Real fans in recent weeks, despite him scoring 21 goals in La Liga so far this season to help the club go five points clear at the top of the league.
The world’s most expensive player has also not fared well against Barca, scoring just three times in 13 previous matches against them in his career.
However, he scored the extra-time strike that decided the final of this competition between these two sides back in April, and he struck again after only 11 minutes.
After a typically dominant spell of early possession, Barca were caught on the counter-attack after Cesc Fabregas ran into three white shirts on the edge of the box. Benzema led the charge through midfield and fed the run of Ronaldo with a through ball. The Portuguese’s stepover baffled Gerard Pique long enough for him to drill a low finish through the legs of Jose Pinto, Barca’s usual keeper for Copa del Rey matches.
With a front three of Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez and with Real inviting pressure it seemed only a matter of time before Barca started creating chances. Their first clear opportunity fell on 16 minutes when Sanchez – all 5’7” of him – ghosted between two Real defenders and met Fabregas’s chipped ball with a header that rebounded off the frame of the goal.
Turkish utility man Hamit Altintop was given a rare start at right-back and for the most part held up well, although two good chances for the visitors came from down that side.
First Messi was released down the left channel and saw his clinical low strike aimed for inside the near post tipped away by Casillas, before Andres Iniesta aim was uncharacteristically off as he attacked from a similar position.
Barca manager Pep Guardiola made no changes at half-time on the night of his 41st birthday, and he only had to wait four minutes after the restart for a gift from is captain. At a corner Pepe completely lost his concentration and could only watch as Puyol stooped to beat Casillas with a diving header.
Soon afterward Real saw a headed chance of their own go begging. Altintop twisted and turned in front of Iniesta before chipping an inviting ball to the far post. Benzema was free to leap and try with a header that clipped the outside of the near post with Pinto beaten.
Serigo Ramos, playing at centre-back alongside Ricardo Carvalho, made an excellent block on Iniesta’s volley after the midfielder connected with Fabregas’s scooped ball over the top.
With Pepe and Busquets both in the book, the former stepped up his bid to be named Villain of the Match when he skulked up to Messi, sat on the floor after being fouled by substitute Jose Callejon, and stepped on his hand. The officials missed the incident, however.
With 20 minutes remaining Busquets glanced an inviting free-kick from Xavi over the bar, but Barca went ahead in the tie for the first time seven minutes later via an unlikely source.
Barca were now persisting with their weighted balls over the top and this time it was Messi who lifted a pass over for Abidal to score only his second ever Barca goal after he chested the ball down and slid a finish past Casillas.
Carvalho was fortunate not to see a second yellow card and subsequent red for a late challenge on substitute Adriano, but the final whistle came without a red card in the whole 90 minutes, something of a rarity in this fixture’s recent history.