Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova will field a much-changed line-up for this evening’s final Champions League Group G game against Benfica but there will be no rest for Lionel Messi as the prolific Argentina forward looks to make history.
On Saturday, the Catalan club thrashed Athletic Bilbao 5-1 in the Primera Division, Messi’s 83rd and 84th goals of 2012 moving him within one goal of equalling Gerd Mueller’s 1972 record of 85 in a calendar year.
The emphatic win helped Barça finish the weekend six points clear at the summit and made their start to the domestic campaign – 40 points from 14 games – the best ever in the Spanish top flight.
Things could not have gone much more smoothly in Europe, either, with top spot in the pool already assured.
Vilanova has, therefore, given several of his star men the night off. Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Andres Iniesta – all included earlier this week among the 40 candidates for UEFA’s Team of the Year – have been rested along with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez, while B team players Sergi Gomez, Carles Planas, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Gerard Deulofeu and Cristian Tello have been included in the 18-man squad.
Messi, however, will feature against the Portuguese visitors, who head into the match in second spot but level on seven points with Celtic.
Speaking yesterday at his pre-match press conference, Vilanova said: “Leo was rested last week against Alaves in the Copa del Rey.
“It’s not about records for goals – the main thing is to win. He is the same as always. He always wants to play and he is in his best habitat when he is playing. I’m excited that he plays, and for us it is always better.”
The Barça manage added: “We need to be as natural as we can about this. Messi has the chance to achieve it and, if we are all waiting expectantly for him to do it, it will make it harder for him. He is keen to play and I think he is used to living with all this about him.”
Despite having shuffled his pack, Vilanova has promised that, whoever takes to the pitch at the Nou Camp, will be up to the task – and motivated to perform.
“We will present a competitive team,” he said. “It’s an important game because we represent the club. It’s the Champions League, and there are teams playing for qualification.
“There are players who are coming off injuries and this match will be perfect. It will be great motivation, for sure. Also, they are all professionals and always give their all.”
And Vilanova will not be under-estimating the threat posed by tonight’s opponents. He added: “Benfica are a very dangerous team, especially up front, with Lima and [Oscar] Cardozo, who can create something at any time.”
Benfica, runners-up to Porto in the Portuguese Liga last season but level on points with the champions at the top after ten games this term, approach the game holding the upper hand over third-placed Celtic thanks to their superior head-to-head record.
The Scottish champions, who round off their group campaign at home to Spartak Moscow, must better the result achieved by Jorge Jesus’ team against Barça in order to progress to the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition.
Benfica head into the game well rested, having not played domestically since a 2-0 win over SC Olhanense on November 24. But Jesus will be without injured midfielders Eduardo Salvio (ankle), Enzo Perez, Carlos Martins and Pablo Aimar for the vital encounter at the Nou Camp.
Nevertheless, the Benfica manager insists his side deserve to progress to the last 16. “Celtic may even qualify but, if we don’t count Barcelona, Spartak and us are the strongest of the group, in my opinion,” Jesus said. “I’m sick of repeating that Barcelona are the best in the world. Still, we go to Barcelona with a lot of confidence.”