In a less than entertaining game in Portugal, Barcelona scraped together their second win in the Champions League and eight consecutive win overall. It was far from a banner performance from the Catalans, but in the end only the result matters, and an own goal from Sebastián Coates was all that Barcelona needed to secure the three points.
In a fantastic atmosphere at the José Alvalade stadium in Lisbon, the hosts kicked the match off. Sporting quickly pushed high up the pitch, and stayed high even after possession was lost. Barcelona found it difficult to navigate with such a high press as passing short wasn’t always an option while the long balls often didn’t find the intended target.
Even though Barcelona struggled in the early going, the visitors were still the first team to threaten, in the 9th minute. Whether Lionel Messi attempted a shot or a pass from the free kick from near the corner flag is unclear, but he almost beat Rui Patricio with his try, just missing the far post. Sporting fired their first shot in the 17th. Cristiano Piccini took aim from distance, but his shot whistled a few inches over the crossbar.
Quickly after Piccini’s chance, Barcelona created two chances of their own. The first one was a quick break from Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez, but the former was correctly ruled offside, while the second saw Messi take a shot from distance, but the Argentine’s shot was too weak to cause any problems.
Minutes went by, but neither side managed to show much on the pitch. Both attacked, Barcelona through possession, Sporting on the counter, but most attacks stopped far from opposing penalty areas as a result of good defending, well before either side could threaten.
Not until the 28th minute would either goalkeeper be called into action, when in quick succession Patricio had to make two saves. Sergi Roberto played a lovely through ball to Suarez, who wasted no time in taking the shot, but Patricio made a very good save one-on-one. Moments later, Suarez floated a cross to a wide open Messi, but his header went right at the goalkeeper. The very next minute Sporting tested Marc-Andre ter Stegen for the first time. Bruno Fernandes fired a good, low shot on target, but the German in the Barcelona goal made the diving stop.
The low excitement first half continued without much, well, excitement. Neither team showed much creativity, meaning this was not a half of football that will be highly ranked on lists of fans enjoying attacking football. Still, the final minutes of the half saw Barcelona create one very good scoring opportunity as Messi was played behind the Sporting defense. But just as Messi was taking the shot, Fabio Coentrao dove in to block the powerful close range shot.
Just before the break, the hosts were forced into a substitution. Seydou Doumbia picked up an injury while diving just outside of the area for which he picked up a yellow card, and was replaced with one of Europe’s top goalscorers from last season, Bas Dost.
While the first half offered very little attacking play and scoring chances, the second would start with a bang. Just over two minutes in, Barcelona celebrated the lead. Messi floated a cross into the danger area from the right side after a free kick won by Nelson Semedo. On its way in front of goal, the ball redirected a couple times before hitting Suarez. With Suarez unable to control the knuckleball, the ball continued its way, hitting Coates and bouncing into the net.
The fans started to become restless after the goal, whistling at every call and non-call from the referee, but nobody received as much abuse as Semedo – a former player of Sporting’s biggest rival, Benfica. As soon as the right back touched, a festival of whistles followed.
Even with the early goal for Barcelona, the second half wasn’t much different from the first one. Barcelona often attacked but without much success while Sporting struggled to make Barcelona pay for space allowed on the counter attack. The hosts often looked dangerous in attack, but they were lacking that final pass that would create a scoring opportunity.
Barcelona wouldn’t threaten again until the 64th minute, when Messi shot over the crossbar from a well-positioned free kick. The very next minute Rakitić would create an even better looking chance for Barcelona with a steal, but Suarez’s shot resulted in an easy save for Patricio.
In the 71st minute, Sporting created their by far best chance of the game. Roberto turned the ball over deep in Barcelona territory and Dost was immediately presented with a good look, but the Dutchman extended the play to his right to Fernandes who was in an even better spot. The Portuguese midfielder powered a shot on goal, but ter Stegen was in perfect position to make the fabulous save.
With Barcelona’s game fading and Sporting gaining momentum, Jorge Jesus made his final two substitutions, taking off Marcos Acuña and Coentrao, and replacing them with Jonathan Silva and Bruno Cesar.
Ernesto Valverde wouldn’t make his first change until the 80th minute when Paulinho took Andres Iniesta’s place. Paulinho’s toughness and defensive awareness brought immediate dividends as just seconds after entering the pitch the Brazilian stopped a dangerous counterattack. His addition and some added tactical instructions also stopped a difficult stretch for Barcelona during which the Catalans rarely carried the ball over the midfield line. The Brazilian also had a fantastic chance to ice the game in the 86th minute. Coates coughed the ball up in transition leading to Rakitić springing Paulinho alone on goal. The summer addition was clearly hoping to send the ball between the legs of Patricio, but the goalkeeper made a great save.
Valverde then made two substitutions in quick succession. First, Andre Gomes took the place of Roberto, then Aleix Vidal replaced Suarez. Referee Ovidiu Haţegan added three minutes to normal time and it seemed Barcelona would manage to survive without many problems, but Sergio Busquets made an unnecessary foul near the corner flag for a dangerous free kick. Sporting, however, couldn’t threaten from it and Barcelona ran out winners.
The grueling schedule continues on Sunday for the Catalans when they return to the friendly confines of the Camp Nou, where they will take on Las Palmas, who will be playing their first game under new coach Pako Ayestarán.