Barça take on Benfica at Camp Nou tomorrow night in the final round of matches in Uefa Champions League Group G. Having already confirmed top spot in the group after taking 12 points from the five games so far, Barça have nothing but pride and the prize money awarded for the points to play for, and Tito Vilanova has rested Xavi, Alba, Mascherano, Pedro, Fabregas and Iniesta for the game. However, there is the enormous appeal of the inclusion in the squad of Leo Messi who could equal or beat Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in 1972, while youngsters Gerard Deulofeu, Sergi Gomez, Carles Planas, Rafa ‘Rafinha’ Alcántara, Sergi Roberto and Cristian Tello are also in Vilanova’s 18-man squad to add to the attraction.
Messi’s ever-increasing effectiveness in front of goal suggests that those who brave the cold tomorrow may well be rewarded with a historical feat. That any player should arrive at 60 top-level goals in one calendar year in the modern game is a truly tremendous achievement, and yes you can include Cristiano in that one. That a player might reach 75 in one year never really even entered my imagination as something achievable nowadays. But 84, and who knows what the final tally might be, is a truly mind-blowing accomplishment. Prepare to throw your hat in the air!
There are plenty of arguments, of course, that Messi should be rested, and Vilanova may well not play him from the start. It might be better to keep him hungry for goals which would be more valuable in La Liga. However, I’m sure he will always want to do his best in every game while it may be the case that beating the record would free him of any added pressure he might feel in the remaining games of December.
Besides Messi, the game is another chance to see some of our up-and-coming youngsters. Last season at the same stage of the competition we were in a similar position with the group already won and we were treated to a fantastic 4-0 victory over BATE Borisov with a team that included Montoya, Bartra, Fontás, Sergi Roberto, Dos Santos, Thiago, Cuenca and the debutante Rafinha with appearances as subs from Muniesa, Deulofeu and Martí Riverola who has since joined Bologna FC.
Tomorrow there will probably not be quite so many new faces. With the competition for places so high these players will need to grab every opportunity they can get. Things are especially difficult for midfield players but tomorrow with Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas all sitting out it will be interesting to see who plays the creative roles. Song should start as DM while Tito will have to choose between Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha to partner Thiago. Vilanova’s decision will be an interesting one as it should demonstrate the pecking order between these players. Dos Santos, as a first-teamer, should have the advantage, with Sergi Roberto next in line. I have to say, however, that I am hoping the nod goes to Rafinha as he seems to me the one with the greatest potential.
In attack I imagine that Tello and Villa will start while the other place will go to Messi or Deulofeu with whoever sits out substituting the other after an hour. In defence we should get a longer look at Carles Planas who did well in the 20 minutes of his debut last week against Alaves, while Sergi Gomez could get another chance, having made his first team debut as an 18-year-old in the Spanish Supercopa at Sevilla in August 2010 when Pep Guardiola was forced to play a severely depleted team due to the late inclusion to the preseason of Spain’s World Cup winning players.
We have played Benfica twice before at Camp Nou in the Champions League with very happy results as on both occasions we went on to lift the trophy. In 1992 the teams met at the end of the second round group stage in what was effectively a semi-final with Barça winning 2-1 through goals from Hristo Stoichkov and José Maria Bakero scoring in a 2-1 victory to send the team on to Wembley where Ronald Koeman’s goal beat Sampdoria. Then in 2006 Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o scored the goals as Barça won 2-0 to go through 2-0 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage before going on to beat Arsenal in the final in Paris.
For Benfica, of course, tomorrow’s game is vitally important. Tied on seven points with Celtic but with the head-to-head goal difference in their favour, Benfica need to take as many points from Camp Nou as Celtic can win in their home game against Spartak Moscow in order to qualify. Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has Eduardo Salvio, Enzo Pérez, Pablo Aimar and Carlos Martins all with physical problems, making his team selection more difficult, especially in midfield. Despite the game meaning more to Benfica I’m still going for a Barça win in an open entertaining contest.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Montoya, Piqué, Sergi Gomez, Puyol, Adriano, Carles Planas, Song, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Thiago, Dos Santos, Rafinha, Tello, Messi, Villa, Deulofeu.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Sergi Gomez, Planas; Thiago, Song, Sergi Roberto; Tello, Messi, Villa.
Benfica: Artur; Maxi Pereira, Luisao, Garay, Melgarejo; Matic, Bruno César, Olá John, Gaitan; Cardozo, Lima.
Prediction: Barça 3 (Messi 2, Villa) Benfica 2
Date: Wednesday 5 December 2012. Kick Off: 8.45 p.m. (local time)