FC Barcelona and SL Benfica played to a 0-0 draw this afternoon, effectively eliminating Benfica from the tournament.
Benfica had a host of chances throughout the game––a must-win for them––but failed to capitalize on any of them.
Scottish side Celtic, meanwhile, beat Spartak Moscow in the other Group G game, which allowed them to advance, along with Barcelona.
The biggest news in an otherwise dull, scoreless game was the injury to Lionel Messi. The diminutive spark-plug––and, by most accounts, the world's best player––was carted off on a stretcher with what looked like a potentially serious knee injury.
He left in the 86th minute of a game Barcelona scant needed in the tournament, which will surely lead to speculation about whether or not he should have been in the game. He came off the bench, an obvious rarity, which was presumably taken as a precaution to his health and fitness.
Either way, both teams left the pitch a little apprehensive this afternoon––Benfica lamenting the end of their Champions League tour, and Barcelona wondering if there's just suffered a fatal blow.
Let's take a closer look at how it played out:
Not too much to speak of in an 0-0 game, but let's take a look at a few key plays:
12': Benfica misses a golden opportunity to take an early lead. They got a three-on-one against the Barcelona back-line, but former Madrid man Rodrigo curled the ball inches wide of the post. This probably should have been a goal.
33': After being played through wonderfully by Nolito, Benfica striker Lima fires a right-footed shot off the post. Replays show that Jose Manuel Pinto tipped the ball into the post––a brilliant save and an unfortunate near-miss for Benfica.
85': Messi's intrepid attitude earns him a shot on goal after a pass from Pique. The shot is snared by the keeper, but Messi goes down and doesn't get back up. He is hauled away on a stretcher, forcing Barcelona to play man-down for the rest of the match.
Jose Manuel Pinto: B+
The veteran keeper from Spain doesn't get the call very often, but he was called upon today and came up big.
Despite holding 66 percent of the possession (which is modest by their lofty standards), Barcelona still allowed 17 shots to Benfica––seven of which were on target.
In a previous Group G game, this one against Celtic, Victor Valdes allowed both of the two on-target shots to find the net. It wasn't always pretty, but Pinto was able to deny a myriad of chances that Benfica created.
Lionel Messi: N/A
It's impossible to give Messi's afternoon a grade.
He was his usual magnificent self after coming on in the 58th minute. He possessed the ball, drew free kicks and created chances for his team. They looked a little listless without him on the pitch, and he was trying to galvanize them into a victory rather than a draw.
But his cavalier attitude got him hurt, which casts a serious pall over his performance. His determination is admirable, but he made a dangerous run into the box during the 85th minute of a game Barcelona didn't even need to win.
It remains to be seen how serious his injury is, but by going down this afternoon, he could have seriously cost his team in the future.
Tito Vilanova: D
Either you rest your stars or you play for the win. You can't do both.
Manager Tito Vilanova, knowing the game was of little importance, rested starters such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. He also elected to rest Lionel Messi...at first.
Whether or not he was influenced by the goading crowd, who was chanting to see Messi play, is up for debate. Maybe he planned to play Messi the whole time.
But subbing Messi in proved to be foolish and now appears to have cost them seriously down the line. Vilanova––along with the rest of Barcelona nation––should be crossing his fingers this afternoon.
For Benfica, the buck stops here. Celtic's 2-1 victory, coupled with this unfortunate draw, meant the end of the line for the Portuguese side.
Barcelona advances to the Round of 16, but does so with the status of their star player in doubt. Even without Messi, they are still one of the favorites to win. But his absence would be quite conspicuous nonetheless.
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