FC Barcelona will be looking to end the UEFA Champions League group stage on a high note tomorrow with a win over Benfica at the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana have already qualified from Group G in first place, and therefore Tito Vilanova has chosen to rest a number of key players although there is a place in the squad for Lionel Messi, who is just one goal away from equalling Gerd Muller’s record for goals scored in a calendar year. Will Barcelona be able to give Celtic a helping hand by defeating Benfica tomorrow?
With top spot already secured, Tito Vilanova wisely opted to leave six key players out of the squad for tomorrow’s match, meaning that Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Pedro Rodriguez will all be watching on from the stands. With a difficult away fixture against Real Betis approaching fast, not to mention a pivotal home encounter with Atletico Madrid on the horizon, it’s a smart decision from Tito who will also be able to assess the progress of a few B team players – provided all goes to plan.
In goal, Victor Valdés should start; after all, the Catalan got enough rest on Saturday night against Athletic Bilbao. All joking aside, there’s no need for Pinto to start in goal tomorrow and if Valdés was going to sit this game out, Vilanova would have left him out of the squad entirely – just as he did in the Copa del Rey.
In defense, Martin Montoya should start at right-back after being relegated to the bench for Saturday’s 5-1 win, with Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol favourites to start at centre-half. Piqué has been playing a lot of football recently, and therefore Tito might consider dropping the Catalan for Alex Song, especially as this is an ideal situation for the Cameroonian to gain experience in a Barcelona defense. Sergi Gomez has also received a call-up, but it would be a huge surprise if he featured from the start tomorrow and at left-back the situation is fairly straight-forward: given that Jordi Alba is taking a well-deserved break, Adriano will start.
Sergio Busquets could start at pivote and indeed I would expect Busi to start given the absence of Fàbregas, Xavi and Iniesta, but Busquets will face competition from Jonathan dos Santos and Alex Song. If Tito wants to field a weakened team and merely rest his key players, expect JDS to start, but otherwise I think Busquets will start to provide the midfield with a little experience. That’s not to say that a Barcelona midfield needs experience – Sergi Roberto for example has performed admirably in this very competition despite his age – but Benfica are not to be underestimated and Tito will be keen to extend his side’s recent run of good form. Ahead of Busi, Thiago and Sergi Roberto should start and the pairing do provide Barcelona with a certain dynamism, although possession retention may be a concern.
Offensively, Lionel Messi should start with Cristian Tello and David Villa likely to start in support, although many would relish the chance to see Gerard Deulofeu handed a rare start. It’s unlikely that Tito will agree, but Deulofeu should feature at some stage, while Rafinha could start as a false #9 – if Vilanova chooses to leave Leo on the bench.
Benfica have been in excellent form recently, registering six wins out of six possible matches during November, but Jorge Jesus’ side are still seen as the underdogs headed into tomorrow’s match. With Pablo Aimar, Carlos Martins, Eduardo Salvio and Enzo Perez set to miss out, Benfica face an uphill task, something which Jorge Jesus acknowledged in his pre-match press conference:
"We’re not at full strength, but we believe in all players. That has always been our way. Everyone is important, especially those who are available, and it’s with them that we’re facing Barcelona. We have full confidence in everyone. We’re playing one of the two best teams in the world, but with a bit of luck, because that also counts, we believe can surprise Barcelona in some moments of the game."
SL Benfica 0-2 FC Barcelona – 2nd October 2012 – UEFA Champions League
Lionel Messi helped himself to a brace – of assists – the last time these two sides met, as a rare goal from Alexis Sánchez put the Blaugrana ahead, before Cesc Fàbregas’ strike sealed the three points.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Puyol, Song, Adriano; Busquets, Thiago, Sergi Roberto; Tello, Messi, Villa
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Artur; Melgarejo, Luisao, Garay, Pereira; Matic, Andre Almeida; Gaitan, Bruno Cesar, John; Lima
Benfica are tough opposition, but with Messi set to start, I would back the Blaugrana to record a comfortable victory. I’m going for 3-1 Barca