Barcelona's dead rubber on Champions League Matchday Six against Benfica last night presented a rare opportunity for the club to showcase its young talent.
Having already been assured of a place in the knockout stages, the leaders of Group G took a relatively experimental looking squad into their final game against a Portuguese side desperate to win at the Camp Nou.
While the likes of Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta all watched from the stands, having earned a deserved rest, Vilanova opted for a youthful starting 11 featuring no fewer than four members from the reserve team.
The big surprise, however, was leaving Lionel Messi on the bench. Vilanova will regret bringing him on at all after the Argentine superstar suffered a knee injury in the 85th minute.
In a bizarre game consisting of a melange of both excellent and woeful play, Benfica squandered good chances that could have put them through to the next round. The 0-0 scoreline certainly does not reflect the open, exciting nature of this game at all.
Vilanova will, however, be somewhat disappointed with the performance of his youth prospects. Here's how they performed.
Martin Montoya ~ B
His experience this season showed as he put in a decent shift at right-back. The Spanish international looked comfortable on the ball but rarely pushed forward in the cavalier fashion of Alba or Dani Alves.
Sometimes it is said that a quiet night for a defender is a good night, and other than a few times in the first half where he gave ex-teammate Nolito a little too much space, he looked safe at the back.
Carles Planas ~ C
A shaky debut for the young left-back, who has spent most of his season in more central areas for Barca B. Benfica favoured the 21-year-old's flank in attack, and he was was turned inside out by Ola John on a number of occasions.
Planas probably should have been subbed instead of Adriano but Vilanova kept his faith in the 21-year-old. Good experience for a player who probably has no real future at the club. He made one nice overlapping run in the second half.
Thiago Alcantara ~ B+
Thiago is hardly a new name to Barca fans, but it is easy to forget he is still just 21 years of age. The prodigious midfielder showed moments of dazzling skill and completed five dribbles on the night, but he went on his own too often.
Indeed, he looked a little out of sync at times with less experienced players around him. Thiago never really got in control of the game and uncharacteristically lost the ball on a few occasions.
Sergi Roberto: B
Roberto was given the nod over Jonathan Dos Santos in midfield and played a decent, albeit unspectacular 90 minutes. He generally held on to the ball well and drew plenty of fouls, but he would have liked to make a more positive influence on proceedings.
Still, he played with plenty of energy and worked hard, offering plenty in attack and defence. Roberto completed two tackles, made three interceptions and blocked one shot on the night.
Rafinha Alcantara ~ C-
(He was subbed off in the 58th minute.)
He played superbly in a similar situation last season against Bate Borisov but looked lost tonight and seemed to struggle with his positional instructions. His first touch let him down all night and he turned the ball over far too many times. Rightly pulled before the hour-mark and will be disappointed not to have done better.
He is a real talent, and even in a poor performance you can see it.
Cristian Tello ~ C
(He was subbed off in the 79th minute.)
The Flash' struggled to get into the game as service was often poor, but when the ball did come his way his touch often let him down. Tello looked a little out of match-practice so the minutes should serve him well.
He improved after the break and looked most likely to make something happen with a few nice runs. He characteristically blew Maxi Pereira away with his pace on one notable occasion.
Gerard Deulofeu ~ N/A
(He was subbed on in the 79th minute.)
Barca B's shining star has to be disappointed that he didn't start.
Deulofeu showed his talent with one superb solo run and then brought the Camp Nou to life when he charged off on the counter. However, he still seems to lack the composure at this level that will only come with time.
Thanks for reading. What did you make of Barca's performance and the youngsters on the pitch? Who most impressed you of the lot?
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