The Breakdown: Benfica vs Barcelona

Barcelona were shackled by some rough defending but Lionel Messi still managed to lay on two goals to help down Benfica 2-0 at the Estadio da Luz on Tuesday.

Football News: Lionel Messi Barcelona

Suhas Bhat

The Argentinean was not afforded the time to rifle in shots but he did produce two straightforward passes that helped Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez score. 

Nevertheless, the absence of Andres Iniesta coupled with Benfica's no-nonsense approach to defending made it difficult for the Spanish side to string attacks together. Although they looked dangerous, they weren't always cohesive and instead, it appeared that Benfica might actually grab the initiative.

Ultimately, the Portuguese side's attack simply could not deal with the tactical nous of the Barcelona defence and they were thus condemned to a first defeat of the season to their historical rivals.

ESPNSTAR.com continues its newest feature - The Breakdown - and we attempt to analyse how the two sides fared in the game and pick the key points of note. 

Benfica

Defence

Roughhouse tactics by the likes of Maximiliano Pereira and Mário Jardel were only effective at the start but a series of yellow cards meant that Barcelona could eventually dribble with far greater abandon than they did in the first half.

The full-backs were energetic and made several runs forward but their crossing was weak and rarely connected with the lone forward. The experienced Artur made several key interceptions and a couple of noteworthy saves but his defenders, as expected, were not fast enough to track the pacey Barcelona attack.

And, in my opinion, Pereira should have been sent off instead of Sergio Busquets by the referee as he was on the verge of initiating a full-scale brawl in the game. 

Artur - 7 | Pereira - 4 | Jardel - 5 | Garay - 5 | Melgarejo - 5

Midfield

Bruno Cesar was used as an advanced playmaker but he rarely made the effort to go back and collect the ball and received a needless booking early on.

After being swapped by Carlos Martins, the midfield became more structured although a lot of the focus was down the wings and Nicolas Gaitan and Enzo Perez demonstrated their impressive dribbling skills even as they often found themselves isolated or else struggling to find a target to cross the ball into the middle for. 

Nemanja Matić could have easily gotten himself sent off well as he kept nipping at Messi's heels, much to the forward's frustration. In some ways, it was a case of Barcelona's reputation of playacting having preceded them and this could have prevented the Primeira Liga from having players receive their marching orders before the end. 

Cesar (off 45') - 5 | Perez (off 60') - 6 | Gaitan (off 75') - 6 | Salvio - 6 | Matic - 5

Attack

Playing as a lone forward is often tough but Lima's job was made even tougher by the fact that he had to contend with Barca veteran Carles Puyol. Until the Barca captain's injury, Lima rarely got more than three seconds on the ball and on this showing, he will not be much of a threat to a Spartak defence that is equally mean and resilient. 

Lima - 6

Substitutions

Bringing on Martins for Cesar did help increase the pace of the Benfica midfield but the addition of Pablo Aimar demonstrated the importance of having a proper ball-carrier. Aimar was not able to make an impact in the game, however, as he was closely marked by Busquets. 

Nolito - 6 (on 75') | Martins (on 45') - 6 | Aimar (on 60') - 6.5

Barcelona

Defence

The defence played pretty well and rarely gave Victor Valdes any cause for concern. However, Javier Mascherano was most culpable for lapses in concentration and for being regularly out of position, allowing Gaitan, Perez and Lima to sneak into the box and attempt a couple of wayward shots. In the Argentinean's defence, however, he does have the ability to make wonderful long-range passes. 

Dani Alves and Jordi Alba did not provide much support down the wings but most likely that was deliberate as Gaitan and Perez are two swift players that should not be allowed the time and space to make runs into the box. Puyol was immense as always but an awkward fall late on in the game led to the seasoned defender being stretchered off (and likely also ruled out of the upcoming El Clasico) and the early reports seem to indicate that he might have suffered a nasty dislocation of the shoulder. 

Valdes - 7 | Alves - 7.5 | Puyol (off 78') - 8 | Mascherano - 6.5 | Alba - 7

Midfield

While Xavi was brilliant in his distribution, he could not provide the killer pass into the box. In many ways, Alexis Sanchez had to come back and try and send Messi through and Barcelona should thank their stars that Iniesta has made a swift return from his recent injury. Sanchez, down the left wing, has too orthodox a dribbling style (he runs like a freight train towards the goal) and the Blaugrana are better suited to utilising him as a straight striker as opposed to the false nine tactic that they utilised in Portugal on Tuesday. 

Fabregas needs to be a lot more disciplined with his challenges as he could have easily earned two yellow cards in the game. On the other hand, it was rather strange that Busquets, largely excellent with his tackling and pressing, was the player who earned a straight red for what appeared to be an attempt to mollify tensions between Alba and Pereira. The UEFA disciplinary body are likely to overturn the automatic one-match ban unless the referee spotted something else that was not readily discernible to the viewer. 

Busquets (sent off 88') - 8 | Fabregas (off 72') - 8 | Sanchez - 8 | Xavi - 8 | Pedro (off 82') - 8

Attack

Messi wasn't exactly employed as a striker but he did drift into central locations more often than the rest of his squad and regularly made the shrewd passes that exploited the little space between the Benfica central defenders. His dribbling and quick thinking allowed him to make inroads on a regular basis and he should have really bagged a goal alongside the two assists (a simple cross led to Sanchez's goal and a through-ball allowed Fabregas to slot his goal) in order to send an ominous message to arch-rivals Real Madrid that he's still as lethal as ever. 

Messi - 9

Substitutions

Song, Villa and Iniesta were brought rather late but they are likely going to be starters at Camp Nou on Sunday as they each provide qualities that Barcelona lacked in the mid-week game. Song can make the ambitious passes that Xavi is unwilling to make while Villa can lead the line and be the threat within the box that Sanchez is not too comfortable being on a regular basis. 

Iniesta's unpredictability, however, is the key that could very well lead to Barcelona opening up a eleven-point gap over Real and help coach Tito Vilanova dispel all concerns in the post-Guardiola era. 

Iniesta (on 72') - 7 | Villa (on 82') - N/A | Song (on 78') - N/A



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