FC Barcelona travel to Portugal tomorrow looking to extend their winning streak to six games, but will face difficult opposition from Liga Sagres leaders Benfica. Like Barcelona, Jorge Jesus’ side are unbeaten in domestic competition, although they are not 100% like the Blaugrana. Their Champions League campaign got off to a reasonable start, with a goalless draw against Celtic, but Benfica will need to step up their game if they wish to get anything from tomorrow’s encounter. On the other hand, with El Clasico on Sunday, Tito Vilanova may choose to rest some of his key players and if that is the case, then Benfica may fancy their chances at an upset. Will Barcelona claim a valuable three points, or will they suffer a slip-up before the Clasico?
After Saturday’s difficult win against Sevilla, Tito Vilanova has a number of difficult decisions to make with regards to team selection for tomorrow’s game. Clearly, Alex Song and Javier Mascherano are not the best centre-back pairing at the club, but they are virtually the only options, unless Tito chooses to restore Carles Puyol to the starting XI (unlikely) or give Marc Bartra a run-out (arguably even less likely). Andrés Iniesta and Adriano have also travelled with the squad to Portugal and could see game-time, but can Tito afford to risk them? Thiago would have probably started tomorrow, but has been ruled out for two months; could Sergi Roberto make a rare appearance? So many questions to be answered, and seemingly no right or wrong answer for each.
Victor Valdés will start in goal and he’ll be anxious to keep his first Champions League clean-sheet since March. Last season’s group-stage was turned out to be relatively easy work for the Blaugrana keepers who managed four clean sheets in the six matches, although at this stage, such a record appears to be out of reach.
Defensively, we could see Martin Montoya make his second start of the season after Dani Alves’ less than impressive performance against Sevilla. In truth, it’s more likely that Alves would merely be resting for the Clasico, but it would be nice to think that Montoya has a chance to displace the Brazilian – provided that he plays well of course. It’s the lack of competition that breeds complacency, and as we well know, that complacency can lead to mistakes. In the centre of defense, Alex Song and Javier Mascherano should both start, although I suspect that both Carles Puyol and Bartra are in the running for Mascherano’s place. Jordi Alba should continue at left-back despite Adriano’s recovery.
Sergio Busquets is the only option in defensive midfield, especially with Jonathan Dos Santos out-of-favour and it’s a similar story in central midfield. Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas started on Saturday, but with Thiago’s injury, they will probably start again tomorrow – despite the impending Clasico. Andrés Iniesta could feature at some stage, and most expect him to do so, but starting seems far too risky. Sergio Roberto is the only other option, though many think he’s unlikely start in such a high-pressure game. Tito could surprise us, but Benfica are not to be under-estimated and if the match goes to plan then Xavi and Cesc can be taken off once the match is out-of-reach.
In attack, Lionel Messi will start with two others for company – but who will Vilanova choose? David Villa is in line for a start, although I suspect that Cristian Tello is also in contention, and neither player is renowned for playing on the right-hand side. Could Vilanova opt for a radical change, moving Messi back onto the right with Villa in the middle and Tello on the left? It’s possible, but I would bet on a frontline of Sanchez, Messi and Tello.
Jorge Jesus ruled last season’s joint-leading goal-scorer Oscar Cardozo out of tomorrow’s match, but his side did sign the man Cardozo tied with: Lima. The Brazilian is something of a late bloomer, but don’t let that fool you; he is an exceptional striker with a keen eye for goal. With three goals in his two appearances for Benfica, Lima is the man most likely to get the goals, but Benfica have other threats as well. From Nicolas Gaitan and Rodrigo to Nolito and Eduardo Salvio, Jorge Jesus has a plethora of options on the wing, and despite the sales of Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel, they have a strong midfield as well. Former Real Madrid centre-half Ezequiel Garay could be a weak-link in the Benfica backline, but he has improved hugely since his spell in the Spanish capital.
FC Barcelona 2-0 SL Benfica – 5th April 2006 – UEFA Champions League
Goals from Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o secured a 2-0 aggregate victory in the quarter-finals of their successful 2005-06 Champions League campaign. Of the XI that started on that night, only Victor Valdés is likely to start, while Carles Puyol and Andrés Iniesta could feature.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Song, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Cesc, Xavi; Sanchez, Messi, Tello
SL Benfica (4-2-3-1): Artur Moraes; Maxi Pereira, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo; Matic, Perez; Gaitan, Aimar, Rodrigo; Lima
Once again, it’s going to be close, but morale is high and nothing less than a win will suffice heading into the Clasico: 3-1 Barcelona