The tension and glory of the first half of the UEFA Champions League season come to a head tomorrow for the gladiators of Group G. FC Barcelona sits in prime position for the next round while SL Benfica will battle for a result that will see the 32-time Portuguese champion continue into the knockout stages or parachute into the Europa League.
All but two of Barça’s six nominees for UEFA.com’s Team of the Year remain off the squad list for Wednesday’s group stage match. Although Jordi Alba, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Javier Mascherano will likely watch from the stands at the Camp Nou, manager Tito Vilanova will likely start Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué. Piqué steadily regains form while Messi is but one goal shy of tying Gerd Müller’s 85-goal haul in a calendar year set back in 1972. Having already surpassed Pelé’s 75-goal record, the little Argentine looks set to make history given his consistent and scintillating form of approximately 1.4 goals per game this season.
Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregàs earn the day off as well.
With first place in Group G already in the bag, Barcelona will feature some fine cantera and Barelona B talent in the form of Cristian Tello, Gerard Deulofeu, Carles Planas, Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and Sergi Gómez, two of whom (Planas and Gómez) could earn their first Champions League appearances.
The team is currently without the services of defenders Éric Abidal, Dani Alves and Marc Bartra, as well as Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez. These injuries should not affect the result too greatly as Thiago Alcântara and the rest of the squad should have plenty of opportunity to create a nice steady pace to the long strings of possession. Thiago, Xavi’s heir apparent, has been getting better with every match and has boasted world-class technique and a steadily maturing sense of the game.
Probable Starting XI: Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Puyol, Adriano; Song, Thiago, Roberto; Deulofeu, Messi, Tello
Benfica sits just above Celtic with both teams boasting a meager seven points after five games and with Benfica earning a head-to-head advantage over its opponent a fortnight ago. More rides on the Camp Nou clash for the Lisbon-based side who will clinch second place in the group should the Scots earn a worse result than Benfica. Celtic Park will again be on the minds of the Portuguese supporters, who need the already-relegated Spartak Moscow to beat its opponent should Barcelona take the lead.
Nevertheless, Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus insisted he would only check on the results of the other match after the final whistle.
Jesus’ squad currently sits in second place in the Portuguese League, level on points with current champion FC Porto and having rested since its last match on November 24.
The Estadio da Luz side will have plenty of firepower up front to test the Barcelona back line including Paraguayan Óscar Cardozo and Brazilian Rodrigo Lima. Finding them could prove difficult however, given several key injuries to the midfield, including creative midfielders and influential veterans Pablo Aimar and Carlos Martins. Enzo Pérez and Eduardo Salvio also miss out due to injuries. Unlike last time however, Benfica will have the benefit of having captain Luisão in the side following a two-month suspension in the preseason for a controversial assault on a referee.
Probable Starting XI: Artur; Maxi, Luisão, Garay, Melgarejo; Matic, Ola John, Gaitán, Bruno César; Cardozo, Lima
Barcelona should take the lion’s share of possession. Despite being well rested, Benfica is tattered in midfield and will probably resort to sitting back while the blaugrana pass freely around the 18-yard box. Vilanova’s side against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend certainly showed how well the squad is clicking. Even the defense, which has netted 16% of the team’s goals this season, will probably be in the mood to get more forward than usual. Expect a healthy amount of shots on goal with another Messi brace to claim his record. Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya!
Prediction: FC Barcelona 4 – 0 SL Benfica
Image: Hugo Correia/EFE