Benfica – FC Barcelona, To clasico, or not to clasico. That is the question…By: Ramzi | October 1st, 2012
“In the Champions there are always surprises. Last year we drew against Manchester United twice. We got through and they did not: this is football. There are no invincible teams and, in a good day for us or a bad day for them, we can win,” Benfica’s coach Jorge Jesus.
In the preview of FC Barcelona’s match against Spartak, we warned that there is no easy group in the Champions league. While there were talks about a manita and a goal, the game showed that you should take nothing for granted, not even a win for FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou against “those whom we –the fans- don’t take seriously”.
Coming next, a match out of the Blaugrana’s territory against the Two-time European Champions, Benfica (including the 1961’s win where they defeated FC Barcelona in the final). A team that is – like FC Barcelona- remains undefeated so far this season domestically and in the champions league.
Benfica will try to end a cycle of thirty years of failure against Spanish clubs and finally pull a win that will boost their chances to qualify for knock out stages after their well-earned draw against Celtic in their first champions league match.
The moral in The Eagles of Lisbon camp was not at best when the season started with fans being frustrated after the transfers of key players Garcia to Manchester City and Witsel to Zenit St Petersburg. Yet, things are changing now and there is more enthusiasm after a series of positive results domestically and in Europe.
However, the team will miss their most reliable defender in Luisao who is suspended and most probably their injured forward Oscar Cardozo. Jorge Jesus will still apply his usual 4-2-3-1 for this match, with many ex-Liga players as starters or on the bench.
Artur Moraes, Maxi Pereira, Jardel, Ezequiel Garay, Lorenzo Melgarejo, Enzo Pérez, Nemanja Matić, Eduardo Salvio, Pablo Aimar, Nicolás Gaitán, Lima
There is no doubt, It will be challenging for Jardel and Ex-Liga defender Garay to cover the absence of Luisao against an offense like Barcelona’s. However the most decisive factor in this match for Benfica will be the performance of the double pivots , the promising yet injury prone Nemanja Matić, and the Argentinian wing converted to central midfielder Enzo Pérez. It is proven that disciplined defensive pivots can bother Barcelona’s offense more than defenders, especially if Iniesta didn’t play and Perez was the man checking Messi when he moves to midfield.
Gaitan and another Ex-La Liga player Salvio will help the fullbacks in defensive mode while being the ones responsible of launching the counter attacks triggered by Messi’s idol and Ex-La Liga star Pablo Aimar. Gaitan in particular can cause lot of concerns with his runs on the left. There is a very slim possibility for Benfica to keep Aimar on the bench in the first half and use a player with better work rate, aggression and defensive contribution.
If we take Benfica’s coach statements for granted, Oscar Cardozo will not be an option in this match. They have plenty of options upfront including more ex-La Liga names like Nolito and Rodrigo, but Lima will be the starter. Benfica got their Brazilian forward at transfer period’s buzzer time and since Cardozo’s injury, Lima played two matches and scored three goals. What makes Lima a very useful player for Benfica in this match is his pace and aggression -Two things Barcelona just hate to deal with.
“This next match is sufficiently important, almost more so than the league game.” FC Barcelona’s coach Tito Vilanova.
So there are no thoughts about el clasico yet and all completely focused on defeating Benfica. Easier said than done. Tito Vilanova showed many signs that he is not Pep’s identical twin in coaching. This match can prove being another chance to note differences. With Pep, you know what to expect. He would’ve pushed his players off the cliff, playing the best possible selection like there is no tomorrow – An approach that worked in some cases and proved disastrous in some other occasions.
With Tito, it is still hard to tell. I think one of the papers Tito should have on the table while sorting out his mind is the schedule of following champions league fixtures showing La Liga matches to play before and after each one of them. This is how it looks like:
Sevilla 2 – 3 FC Barcelona
Benfica – FC Barcelona
FC Barcelona – Real Madrid
Deportivo de La Coruña – FC Barcelona
FC Barcelona – Celtic
Rayo Vallecano – FC Barcelona
FC Barcelona – Celta de Vigo
Celtic – FC Barcelona
Mallorca – FC Barcelona
FC Barcelona – Zaragoza
Spartak Moscow – FC Barcelona
Levante – FC Barcelona
FC Barcelona – Athletic Club
FC Barcelona – Benfica
Betis – FC Barcelona
Current group standing:
FC Barcelona 3 points
Benfica 1 point
Celtic 1 point
Spartak 0 point
FC Barcelona faces Benfica after a very exhausting match against Sevilla and with a clasico on the sight and a chance to get 11 points away from Real Madrid in La liga and (equally important) a needed win at home to create leverage in head-to-head counters against the main and only rival for La Liga title. Losing against Real Madrid can prove being another U-Turn in La Liga’s quest. Winning against Real Madrid means that La Liga title is Barca’s to lose. In other words, el clasico result may not decide the liga title, but it will be the most decisive factor between many. Will the result against Benfica have the same impact on Barcelona’s ambitions in the champions league?
Checking the fixtures list shows that Barcelona will be in a much better position to prepare for the following champions league matches. So how should Tito prepare for the match against Benfica, with el clasico in mind?
First approach, Do it Pep’s way!
Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa
Finish the match early, slowdown the tempo and increase ball circulation to reserve energy and kill the match, and make selective subs to rest players. Possibly the most likely approach, however the question is: What if this game turned to be a Spartak or a Sevilla? No way back. If you start your best you have no choice but to bring a result back home, even if it means pouring the last drop of energy you have. Then sprint to el clasico.
Second approach, take the big risk!
Valdes, Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Cesc, Sergi Roberto, Tello, Messi, Villa
Then of course, sub Mascherano and Villa out for Puyol and Alexis before giving Iniesta the last 15 minutes to warm up for the clasico. If this work (even a draw), it will prove being the big prize. However, it may prove extremely risky against a quality team like Benfica. The Portuguese will be all over this selection as it motivates them to hunt the opportunity.
The balanced approach, get the best of two worlds!
Valdes, Montoya, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba, Song, Iniesta, Cesc, Tello/Alexis, Messi, Villa
You can see that Tito is missing Thiago already. He could’ve solved lot of complexities in this series of matches. Even Messi decided to name his child Thiago! Back to topic, I do believe going with such a balanced selection is the way to go. Alves need the bench for a match and that’s for many reasons. Montoya need to start this match for many reasons as well. My initial thoughts were to keep both Puyol and Iniesta out till the second half. But history tells us that FC Barcelona players get the clearance after an injury with their fitness level being good enough to start a match. On the other hand, both Xavi and Busquets showed signs of fatigue and a break before a clasico can help a lot. Villa need more minutes to regain his peak before getting subbed in the second half.
I would go for Alexis over Tello only if Messi plays as a 10 behind Villa and Alexis, or else it is better not to expose the clasico’s selection through this match. Pedro is a must against Real Madrid so he should take a rest against Benfica.
It will be very important for Barcelona’s fullbacks to synchronize their offense/defense contribution, especially if none of the two center midfielders played conservative. The reason why FC Barcelona conceded too many goals lately had NOTHING to do with not buying a zillion defenders and a thousand. It is systematic and it is all about the lack of balance between offense dynamics and defense needs. When the two fullbacks attack at the same time and the two center backs are left to patrol and guard half the field at their own with occasional help from the holding midfielder, they will get exposed even if they both were Chuck Norris clones.
As for the offense, Sevilla match demonstrated in the second half what we were calling for since a year and more. Messi serves the team best when he plays behind the forwards rather than being a false nine. Of course, Messi is Messi (That was eloquent, right?). He can score and roar wherever he plays. But the mortals around him have a different story to tell. And they can do better while he is playing behind them. Hopefully we see more of that in the coming two matches.
An entertaining historical observation, every time the two teams met in the champions league, the winner of their match ended up winning the champions league title. Scratch all of the above and play the best selection possible!