Barça finished the Champions League group stage with a 0-0 draw with Benfica at Camp Nou and will now face one of Porto, Arsenal, Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk and AC Milan in the last sixteen. There was no record for Leo Messi who was stretchered off with a knee injury near the end though the first reports coming through suggest the injury is just a knock and it now seems that the player will be fit again for Sunday’s league game at Betis.
Tito Vilanova had hinted that Messi was going be in the starting XI but he disappointed Barça fans and Celtic supporters alike by leaving the Argentinian on the bench to start. Pinto came in between the posts while we saw a defence of Montoya, Puyol, Adriano and Planas. In midfield Song played the defensive role with Sergi Roberto and Thiago in front of him while in attack we started with Rafinha on the right, Villa in the middle and Tello on the left.
Perhaps it was Vilanova’s decision on Messi that led to a subdued crowd on a cold night for the 50,659 who attended the match. The team were slow to get started with Benfica pressing us high up the pitch. With Pinto in goal we often struggle against this sort of pressing and the general disorganization with Adriano and Song having problems to bring the ball out led to Benfica having the better of the first half. Jorge Jesus’s team kept us on the back foot and won a series of corners while Barça showed little going forward with Tello and particularly Villa getting caught in offside positions. Thiago and Sergi Roberto did a reasonable job in midfield but it is not the same as having Xavi and Fabregas while Rafinha, playing an early-Messi style role, drifting inside from the right wing, failed to make the same impact as Messi despite showing some neat touches.
Eventually Benfica’s pressure began to turn into chances. In the 11th minute Benfica’s most dangerous player on the night, Ola John, sent an excellent through-ball for Rodrigo who was played onside by Adriano and we were fortunate that Rodrigo sent his shot wide with just Pinto to beat. Then after Benfica’s fourth corner from the left the ball came back to Nolito who crossed to the near post but Lima headed wide from six yards. Barça replied with Song sending a pass through which despite touching Luisao fell for Tello but Benfica keeper Artur was out quickly to get his foot to the ball. Then in the 24th minute Tello crossed from the left but Rafinha had to stretch at the far post and he could only hit the ball into the ground and as it bounced up towards goal there was not enough momentum and Garay headed clear.
It was a brief spell from Barça as the visitors continued to frustrate our game. There were some moments of poor concentration from our defence. First we failed to mark up on a throw-in down the line to Nolito, and Lima was allowed into the box though Pinto managed to get a touch on the shot, sending the ball against the far post and Planas managed to avoid knocking in the rebound, hacking the ball away to safety. Then a couple of minutes later Planas failed to cut out a long crossfield pass to John who then cut inside Planas before shooting low and Pinto made another good save, tipping the ball past the post. Barça failed to improve as the first half drew to an end and the crowd responded with chants of “Messi, Messi”.
Benfica had another chance right at the start of the second half when Song failed to get a good clearance with his header and Nolito fired wide from 15 yards. It wasn’t long after that Messi got the order to start warming-up and the atmosphere at Camp Nou warmed up in tandem. Tello had a good run down the left but Villa finish was weak. Then Tello got past Maxi Pereira but as he closed in on goal Luisao got across to tackle. Tello continued to look dangerous, slipping a pass through to Villa who made another mess of his finish, hesitating between shooting and passing.
Messi came on in the 58th minute for the fading Rafinha and only 56 seconds after coming on Luisao was booked for fouling him. The ugly foul from Adriano a minute later on Rodrigo might easily have earned a red instead of the yellow and the game began to get heated as Maxi Pereira escaped punishment after full-bloodied fouls on Tello and Piqué. (please compare with Rafinha getting booked for shooting after the referee’s whistle).
Messi had a couple of free kick efforts but the first went wide and Artur read the second, and he also made one tremendous horizontal run across the edge of the area but he couldn’t slip the ball through to the army of Barça players who’d been freed by Messi’s magnetism for the Benfica defenders. Something seemed to say that it wasn’t going to be Messi’s night, then with five minutes to go he finally got the chance everybody was waiting for after Piqué scooped a pass over the top. Messi had just Artur to beat and he tried to dribble to the right- However, the Benfica keeper read Messi’s intentions and moved the right way with the result being a heavy whack between Messi’s left knee and Artur’s head. Both players managed to stay up as Messi curled in a shot and Artur got back to save on the line but then Camp Nou held its breathe as Messi collapsed in pain.
Barça were left with ten men though there was still a chance for Deulofeu after a forty yard run but his shot failed to find the target. With the news of Celtic taking a late lead in their game with Spartak Moscow, Benfia now needed a win to stay in the competition. However, despite a late push, and finishing the game with more shots, 16-9, and more corners 10-2, Benfica’s Champions League hopes ended here.
Vilanova’s decision to include Messi in the squad and then to use him as a substitute may receive some comment. Having strongly hinted that Messi would play from the beginning there may be some who feel let down. However, Tito seems to have taken his decision based on different criteria to the rest of us. With little at stake it was logical to look at who most needed the minutes and of the forward-looking players that was Thiago, Villa and Tello. That left two places which went to two of our most promising youngsters, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto, for whom the experience will be very useful. If Messi had played then one of these five would have missed out. As I mentioned in my preview the pecking order of the young midfielders might have been revealed tonight with Johnathan dos Santos being completely ignored for the game. This could well indicate a future away from Camp Nou for the Mexican.
Barça: Pinto 7, Montoya 6, Puyol 6, Adriano 5 (Piqué m66, 6.5), Planas 6; Thiago 6, Song 5, Sergi Roberto 6.5; Rafinha 6 (Messi m58, 6), Villa 5, Tello 6.5 (Deulofeu m78, 6).
Benfica: Artur, Maxi Pereira, Luisao, Garay, Melgarejo; André Gomes, Matic; Ola John, Rodrigo (Almeida m77), Nolito (Bruno Cesar m63); Lima (Cardoza m77)
Yellow cards: m43 Nolito, m49 Rafinha, m56 Garay, m60 Adriano, m78 Matic.