Xavi Hernandez will be aiming to continue his winning start as Barcelona manager when they host Benfica in the Champions League.
There is a sense of optimism surrounding Barcelona after a few months of discontent and grim. The appointment of club legend Xavi Hernandez has certainly revitalised the group, with the Spaniard beginning his reign with a narrow win over Catalan rivals Espanyol at the weekend.
Barcelona began their European campaign disappointingly, enduring thrashings at the hands of Bayern Munich and Benfica to place them rock-bottom of their group. However, two wins over Dynamo Kyiv has helped them climb up to the second spot, although they remain only two points ahead of their midweek opponents.
The game will also be Xavi’s first Champions League outing as manager, and he will be hoping to keep his winning start going. In perspective, the clash is very important for Barcelona, who could cement second spot on the group table, although a loss will see them drop down to third.
Benfica will be aiming for just that, with Jorge Jesus hoping that lightning strikes twice when his team travel to Camp Nou this midweek. The Portuguese giants took advantage of a haphazard Blaugrana side last time and comprehensively thrashed them 3-0 at Estadio Da Luz. Benfica were brimming with confidence and looked primed to finish second in those early parts of the campaign.
However, they could only manage a draw against Dynamo Kyiv and endure comprehensive defeats to Bayern. Those results have pinned them to third and makes the Barcelona clash a must-win game for them. A victory will allow the Catalans to increase their gap and ensure Benfica can no longer catch up with them.
Jesus will surely want his side to fight for a place in the next round of the competition. But they would also require Bayern to continue their rampant form and beat Barcelona in the final matchday. Simply put, there could be an exciting conclusion to this group, and here, at the Hard Tackle, we will run the rule over these two sides ahead of this crucial match-up at Camp Nou this midweek.
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Xavi could ring in the changes for this important clash with Benfica, with some of the substitutes against Espanyol set to start. Philippe Coutinho, Ronald Araujo and Yusuf Demir came off the bench to help Barcelona see out their neighbours and are primed for a start in midweek.
Plenty of players miss out, with Ansu Fati, Pedri, and Martin Braithwaite being absent through injuries. Meanwhile, Xavi squashed rumours of Sergio Aguero retiring from football and the Argentine forward remains out for the foreseeable future.
However, new signing Dani Alves will be unavailable to play until January. There were quite a few injury scares from the last game after Sergio Busquets, Nico Gonzalez and Oscar Mingueza were all taken off. Xavi was on hand to allay those fears suggesting there was nothing serious over their withdrawal.
Busquets and Mingueza are expected to start, while Gonzalez could be replaced by Gavi, who should come into the centre after playing a role in the front three at the weekend. Coutinho and Demir are expected to play a part alongside Memphis Depay in the front line.
Araujo could come in at the back, with Eric Garcia likely to drop to the bench, while Gerard Pique could go back into his usual position at left centre-back.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Mingueza, Araujo, Pique, Alba; Gavi, Busquets, de Jong; Demir, Depay, Coutinho
Jorge Jesus received a boost from his medical team over the weekend with returns of Valentino Lazaro and Andre Almeida. Both are reportedly fit to play this midweek. However, Lucas Verissimo remains out with a knee problem, with Morato likely to occupy his role at the heart of the Benfica defence alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen.
Rodrigo Pinho is the other player who is certainly out of the midweek clash. Midfielder Joao Mario, who only recently returned to training from a back injury, might only be fit for a bench role if Jesus decides to involve him.
Roman Yaremchuk could be involved, while Pizzi might also get a place in the lineup. Jesus will keep the shape of his side with a back three, with Gilberto and former La Masia talent Alejandro Grimaldo occupying the wing-back slots.
In the final third of the pitch, there could be two players playing behind central striker Rafa, although the Portuguese is likely to interchange his role with Yaremchuk and Darwin Nunez. The formation of the Benfica team is to contain the pressure posed by a fluid looking Barcelona side, with Depay in particular someone the Portuguese side fear might cause some problems in attack.
Probable Lineup (3-4-2-1): Vlachodimos; Otamendi, Morato, Vertonghen; Gilberto, Weigl, Pizzi, Grimaldo; Nunez, Yaremchuk; Rafa
- Barcelona will surely progress into the next round with a win over Benfica.
- Barcelona are unbeaten in four games in all competition.
- Barcelona lost 3-0 in the reverse fixture with Benfica this season.
- Benfica will have to contend for a Europa League place if they lose to Barcelona.
- There have been 2.5 goals scored in Benfica’s last three games in the Champions League.
Player to Watch
After a mixed bag of a period under former manager Ronald Koeman, Memphis Depay began Xavi’s reign with a goal that sealed the Spaniard’s first win at the club. The Dutchman will be hopeful of carrying on his performance levels and keeping his role intact at the heart of the attack.
Memphis can count himself as important in Barcelona’s pursuit to finish second in their group and enter the knockout phase this season. His goals could prove important, as he can show Xavi he is perfect for his desired system and help his team exact revenge against Benfica.
Barcelona 2-0 Benfica
Barcelona have entered a new phase, away from uncertain speculation and in the hands of one of their beloved players. Xavi has promised to improve this team, and it was clear right from day one. While their win on the weekend might have been a narrow one, it showed plenty of promise for the future.
Against Benfica, they are expected to be ready and collect three points at all costs. The reverse fixture might be considered a blip, and they should be prepared to make amends. A win will secure the Catalans a passage into the next round irrespective of the results elsewhere.