Friday 23 February 2018

Messi chasing Muller record as Barca look to 'B' brigade for visit of Benfica

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova will field a much-changed line-up for their 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 La Liga, with Messi's 83rd and 84th goals of 2012 moving him within one goal of equalling Gerd Muller's 1972 record of 85 in a calendar year.

The win helped Barca move six points clear at the top and made their start to the 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 tonight off.

Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Andres Iniesta – all included 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, level on seven points with Celtic.

"Leo was rested last week against Alaves in the Copa del Rey," said Vilanova. "It's not about records for goals – the main thing is to win. He always wants to play and he is in his best habitat when he is playing."

Benfica approach the game holding the upper hand over third-placed Celtic, thanks to their superior head-to-head record.

The Scottish side, who round off their group campaign at home to Spartak Moscow, must better the result achieved by Jorge Jesus' team against Barca in order to progress to the last-16.

Benfica head into the game well rested, having not played domestically since November 24. But Jesus will be without injured midfielders Eduardo Salvio (ankle), Enzo Perez, Carlos Martins and Pablo Aimar for the vital encounter.

Barcelona v Benfica,

Live, Setanta Sports 1, 7.45

Irish Independent

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