Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas put Barça on the road to a 0-2 victory over Benfica in Lisbon tonight, though the excellent performance was soured by a horrific looking injury to Carles Puyol and by the late sending off of Sergio Busquets. The first news on Puyol is that it is a dislocated elbow but we’ll have to wait for reports to confirm this.
From the kick off it became clear that Benfica were going to pull everybody back and play a compact defence though as soon as the 3rd minute they showed how quickly they could break and Valdés had to get down to block Bruno Cesar’s swerving drive from 25 yards. Barça’s didn’t take long to create danger at the other end, in the fifth minute Fabregas picked out Messi who sent in a low cross from the left that was cleared for a corner. Barça took the corner short and after a typical patient build up the ball came back to the left where Xavi and Messi still were, Xavi found Alba who combined with Messi who got into the area before firing a powerful driven cross that found Alexis ready to pounce when goalkeeper Artur missed it and Barça were a goal up.
There was a good reaction from Benfica with Gaitan sending a defence-splitting pass into Lima but Valdés was out quickly to make a very good block. Then from a long throw on the right Matic flicked on before Gaitan hooked over. However, as Benfica tried to come forward Barça began to find chances at the other end, Alexis returned the favor for Messi with a low cross but Messi’s low shot was tipped past the post by the diving Artur, then a long ball from Xavi was chested down by Alexis before he shot over from the edge of the area.
Benfica continued to trade blows, Salvio drove one straight at Valdés, and Garay flicked on Bruno Cesar’s free kick but there was nobody to finish as the ball flew across the face of the goal. However, it was Barça who finished the half looking more dangerous, Pedro’s 25-yard effort was stopped by Artur, then Pedro was to slow when he met Alba’s deep cross and instead of shooting he failed to find Messi with the pass inside. Artur then made a hash of a clearance, sending the ball straight to Cesc who knocked it to Pedro who failed to find the pass back in for Cesc’s run. On the stroke of half time Pedro sent in an excellent cross that Xavi could only get the slightest of touches on which took the ball away from Alexis who was storming in at the back post.
Barça controlled the second half with fewer problems. Our possession game is looking back to its best with long periods of possession which left the Benfica players frustrated. There were chances too, Xavi and Messi combined to set up Alexis whose flick past the keeper went just past the far post. Then in the 55th minute Messi swivelled away from two opponents 40 yards out and darted goalwards, as more defenders moved towards him he picked his moment to prod the ball onto Fabregas who took the ball in his stride, on into the area before beating Arturo at his near post with a left-foot drive.
Again there was a brief reaction from Benfica after the goal. Salvio tried a 30-yarder which Valdés had to dive spectacularly to push round the post. Then from two set-pieces, first Jardel and then Matic found the header but not the target. However, Barça were soon back in control and Pedro and Messi should have managed a third in another assault on the Benfica area but Messi’s final shot was blocked.
There was excellent news in the 72nd minute when Iniesta returned to action after injury and soon he would show some of his typical brilliance, winning a corner after turning between three defenders. Messi demonstrated his heading ability from Alba’s cross but Artur made another good stop. Then from an attacking corner Puyol made a spectacular leap in an attempt to reach the ball but he got clipped in mid-air causing him to fall awkwardly with his arm twisted behind his back. The image of Puyol’s forearm twisted out at a strange angle left everybody watching cold. Song came on to take his place in defence.
The second half until Puyol’s injury had seemed to be going perfectly but then in the last ten minutes some of the tackles were getting out of control as Martins and Matic went into the book. Then in the 88th minute Busquets went in aggressively for two successive challenges and despite seeming to play the ball in both challenges the referee decided to send the midfielder off. The game ended in an ugly mood with Martins catching Alves with his elbow, and Nolito, our ex-player who came on for the last 15 minutes, scything down Mascherano.
This was generally a very good performance from the team and a big improvement on the last three games. I admit I was in favour of dropping Alexis but he responded to Tito’s confidence with his first goal of the season and a good performance. Fabregas was also going out of favour very recently but it seems his goals at Sevilla have restored his confidence and he made a very valuable contribution today. The victory leaves us top of Group G with 6 points followed by Celtic on 4 points after their 2-3 win at Spartak Moscow, Benfica are with just one point while Spartak are still on zero.
The negative of course was Puyol’s injury though at least it is not his knee. The dislocation was clear to see but we will have to wait if there is a fracture or any ligament damage which would make his recuperation longer. Now, we will have another problem to form a defence against Madrid on Sunday as it is not clear whether Piqué will make it in time which means we’ll probably play Song and Mascherano again. More on that as the clásico moves nearer. The other big worry is the sluggish form from Alves, we’ll just have to hope that like Alexis and Fabregas he can turn things round quickly.
Benfica: Artur; Maxi Pereira, Jardel, Garay, Melgarejo; Matic, Enzo Perez (Pablo Aimar m61); Salvio, Bruno César (Carlos Martins m45), Gaitán (Nolito m75); Lima
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 5.5, Puyol 7.5 (Song m78, 6.5), Mascherano 7.5, Jordi Alba 7.5; Xavi 7, Busquets 7, Fabregas 7.5 (Iniesta m72, 7); Pedro 6.5 (Villa m82 –), Messi 7.5, Alexis 7.
Goals: m6 Alexis 0-1, m55 Fabregas 0-2.
Yellow cards: m19 Fabregas, m28 Pedro, m38 Bruno Cesar, m84 C.Martins, m85 Matic, m89 Jardel.
Red card: m88 Busquets.