Champions League football returns tomorrow night as Barça take on Benfica in what is possibly the biggest game in Group G at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon (Kick off 8.45 pm Spanish time). Tito Vilanova has Puyol, Iniesta and Adriano back in the 21-man squad for the trip, though Barça will of course be without Thiago Alcantara, out for two months with a knee ligament injury. B-team players Oier Olazabal, Sergi Roberto and Cristian Tello have also been included.
Benfica drew 0-0 at Celtic in the first Champions League game of Group G two weeks ago, fielding a side with five Argentinians, including Pablo Aimar (ex-Valencia and Zaragoza) and Ezequial Garay (ex-Racing Santander and Real Madrid), and two Brazilians in the starting XI. For tomorrow’s game they could also include the Uruguayan right back Maxi Pereira and the Brazilian forward Lima, who scored both goals in Benfica’s 1-2 away win at Paços de Ferreira on Friday, making a total of nine South Americans who could start against Barça. Ex-blaugrana Nolito is also in Benfica’s squad, last season he scored 8 goals in 21 games, though he seems more likely to start on the bench tomorrow.
Benfica no longer dominate Portuguese football like they did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and surprisingly they have only won three league titles in the last 20 years (1993/94, 2004/05, 2009/10), finishing second in the last two seasons to Porto. In theory, they should be no match for Barça. However, it is well worth remember that last season they knocked out Manchester United in the group stage having beaten the red devils 2-1 in Lisbon and drawn 3-3 at Old Trafford. They went on to beat Zenit St Petersburg in the last 16 before going out to eventual champions Chelsea in the quarter-finals.
Man United’s fate last season should serve as a warning to us, though we really shouldn’t have too many problems to get through this group. However, we have had more problems than usual to win our last three games against Spartak, Granada and Sevilla, partly due to problems with the new defence, but also because of a lack of effectiveness going forward. It’s too early to say whether Puyol or Iniesta will be straight back in the starting XI tomorrow but we could definitely do with having both these players fit to start against Real Madrid next Sunday.
With the clásico in mind, it is very important that we have a good game in Lisbon. The last thing we need right now is a defeat with a sloppy performance. In this sense I hope to see a much improved Dani Alves after his poor game in Seville as his role against Madrid is always very important. Another player who was disappointing against Sevilla was Alexis Sanchez who is our only forward still to find the net this season, I feel he may have lost his chance for a while and I think either Tello or David Villa will start in his place. There is of course the option of putting Iniesta out on the left wing, especially if Tito wants to maintain Cesc in the team, though we are yet to see Iniesta in that role under Vilanova. At least we have a few more options now, despite the loss of Thiago. I hope we see a more solid performance tomorrow as we cannot rely on continuing to get the lucky breaks we’ve seen recently. A good preparation for the clásico would be fantastic, but the victory is most important to extend our lead at the top of Group G. A defeat would leave us in a much more complicated position, just remember what happened to Man Utd. The last time we met Benfica in the Champions League was back in the quarter-finals of 2006. We drew 0-0 at the Estadio da Luz before winning the 2nd leg 2-0 at Camp Nou and going on to lift the trophy in Paris.
Barça’s 21-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Puyol, Bartrá, Song, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Pedro, Messi, Alexis, Villa, Tello.
Possible starting XIs:
Benfica: Artur; Maxi Pereira, Ezequiel Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo; Nemanja Matic, Enzo Perez; Nicolas Gaitan, Pablo Aimar, Eduardo Salvio; Lima.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Song, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Tello.
My prediction: Benfica 1 Barça 2