FC Barcelona walked onto the pitch in Lisbon with a challenge: make history by scoring in Portugal. The team was able to do exactly that courtesy of two goals from Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, who were both assisted by Messi. The blaugrana maintains a 100% win record under Tito in the Champions League thanks to this win.
Eventful first half
The starting line-ups from both teams were as follows:
As we can see from the average positioning of the first half, Benfica employed a high line-up with the offside trap but was very conservative on player movement which they hoped would make it hard for Barcelona to create clear chances. Everybody from Benfica was very disciplined, but it was Barcelona who scored early through a very neat and quick build up play from Messi and Alba. Sanchez drifted inwards and was able to tap in Messi’s cross from inside the six yard box, beating Ezequiel Garay to the ball for Barcelona’s 800th goal in the competition.
The goal was just minutes after Valdes made his first save of the night, denying Bruno César’s swerving left-foot drive with his legs. It would prove to be one of many for Valdes who remained very alert throughout the game.
The attacking momentum was exchanged fluidly between the two teams, with Valdes saving another 2 shots from Eduardo Salvio. Barcelona meanwhile created an excellent chance from Xavi’s inch-perfect lobbed ball to Sanchez, who wasn’t able to capitalize on the situation in the 24th minute.
Benfica and Barcelona both played the first half as if the game was still scoreless. Benfica proceeded with its plan in the remaining first half, meanwhile FC Barcelona continued to keep possession while creating a couple of chances. The first half ended with Benfica having 8 attempts, 6 on target, but with only 30% possession. Barcelona, meanwhile, had 5 attempts with 3 of them on target along with 70% possession.
Change of intent
Jorge Jesus tried his first substitution right after the second half whistle, replacing already yellow-carded Bruno César with Carlos Martins, a sign of attacking intent. But it was Xavi, Messi and Alexis yet again who created the first chance of the second half. Xavi received a pass from Messi and was able to pick out Alexis, only for the Chilean to put it past the far post after beating Artur.
In the 55th minute, Messi was able to draw Benfica’s defense to himself after receiving a pass from Busquets, laying the ball off to Fabregas who scored with his left foot. The thundering strike took Artur by surprise and it made the game even harder for Benfica.
Aimar was put on in place of Perez in the 60th minute and Benfica now tried to chase a goal with a 4-4-1-1 formation. Tito and Barcelona replied by playing wider. Here is the average position of the players from minute 75 – 90:
Aimar and Gaitan proved to be a handful for Barcelona, both were able to stretch Barcelona’s defense and it was only because of Puyol’s heroics that Benfica wasn’t able to create a clear-cut chance. Starting from the 78th minute, Barcelona cooled down the tempo and kept possession which largely frustrated the Benfica players. Matić, Jardel, and Martins picked up their yellow cards in short succession, but the referee decided that Busquets was deserving of a red card after clashing with Benfica’s captain Maxi Pereira. Busquets’ red card was really harsh in the scheme of things as it was Benfica who kept on fouling Villa, Iniesta, and Messi. The match ended on even more of a sour note with the saddening Puyol injury blow in the 78th minute.
Victor Valdes’s heroics by saving 8 on target attempts should not be overlooked. Just like in countless previous matches, Valdes’ saves on one-on-ones are an asset to FC Barcelona. Messi was marked out of the game again, but he managed to gain back some of his fearless dribbles after quite a few matches without them. Alexis and Fabregas are the two players gaining form. This should give a hint as to Tito’s starting eleven in el Clasico.
In the post-match comments, Benfica’s coach admitted that Barcelona’s technique was a key part of its win. He added, “We played well in the first half and didn’t deserve to be losing at half-time. Barça were very effective and that was the difference until they made it 2-0. After that, it was even more difficult.” The superiority in ball control, passing, and team work made it very hard for Benfica to create clear chances. “We had to be more aggressive towards the man that was carrying the ball. That was the message I gave the players, but Barcelona don’t lose possession.”
Meanwhile Tito lauded the opponent’s resolve that made Barcelona work very hard for the win. “The win took a lot of effort but despite that we took three very important points here in Lisbon. We are very happy with the result, we haven’t managed to win at the home of Benfica recently despite having played here with some great teams.”
Image Credits: AFP/Getty Images