Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas were on target as Barcelona convincingly beat Benfica 2-0 in their Champions League Group G encounter in Lisbon.
A fairly even first half was marked by an early goal for the visitors to the Estadio da Luz as Alexis got on the end of Lionel Messi’s cross for a close-range finish, and the Argentine was again the architect when Fabregas doubled the lead in the 55th minute as Barcelona took firm control of the second half.
There was late drama too when Sergio Busquets was sent off for a bit of afters with Maxi Pereira in the 88th minute, ending the evening on a slightly sour note for Tito Vilanova’s team after they had outplayed the home side for long spells in the second half.
The evening started and finished in contrasting fashion for the visiting team who, boosted by the return to action of Carles Puyol, were ahead within just six minutes. The veteran’s own evening was to end abruptly and painfully however when, 13 minutes from time, he was stretchered off after landing heavily - It was later confirmed that he had dislocated his elbow.
Both sides probed their opponents in opening exchanges as Bruno Cesar drew a save from Victor Valdes and Lionel Messi tested the Benfica defence’s organisation with a run, and the game had barely settled down when Barcelona took the lead.
The goal was simple but effective as Messi drilled a low ball across the face of goal from the left, and Sanchez slid in for an easy finish to put Barca a goal to the good against a team who prior to this match had not been defeated yet this season.
Benfica went for an instant response and Brazilian forward Lima should have done better from close range when denied by Valdes after a neat through ball. At the other end Messi brought Artur into play when he forced the Brazilian goalkeeper down to his left for a smart save as both teams tried to maximise their own attacking prowess, and exploit some defensive lapses from their opponents.
Fabregas and Pedro both collected yellow cards on the way to half time, the latter for a poor attempt at winning a penalty that did not fool Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir. Further midfield battles ensued as the likes of Nicolas Gaitan and Busquets attempted to swing an even first half one way or the other.
Barcelona had a good opportunity to double their advantage going into the interval but Xavi Hernandez’s attempt to get on the end of Pedro’s cross from the right merely took the ball off Alexis’s head. The Mexican went close to scoring again immediately after the start of the second half but shot wide as Barcelona started to impose themselves on Benfica.
The parity that had been evident in the first half began to wane quickly and as Barcelona upped the ante their reward came 10 minutes into the second half.
Messi, who before this game had scored 30 Champions League goals in 35 starts, emphasised that his scoring statistics failed to take into account just how many goals he has truly had a hand in when he created the second for Fabregas. A well-timed run from the midfielder and perfectly-weighted through ball from Messi were synchronised to perfection, and Fabregas powered the ball past Artur for 2-0.
Pablo Aimar made an impact from the bench as Benfica manager Jorge Jesus tried to halt Barcelona, but the influence of the Argentine playmaker was dulled by another going by the same description as Messi and his team-mates suffocated whatever hope the home team had of recovering something from the game.
The final 15 minutes were none too pleasant for Barcelona as they lost Puyol to injury and Busquets to a needless red card, but it was a case of job done as they collected all three points and maintained their 100 per cent record in Group G.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Lionel Messi (Barcelona): Alexis and Fabregas will receive plaudits for their goals but it was Messi who made them, and the Argentine was again instrumental in wrestling control of a game in his team’s favour and providing assists for both goals.
BENFICA: Artur 7, Pereira 6, Jardel 7, Garay 6, Melgarejo 5, Salvio 6, Matic 5, Cesar 6, Perez 6, Gaitan 7, Lima 6. Subs: Nolito 6, Aimar 7, Martins 6.
BARCELONA: Valdes 7 , Alves 6, Mascherano 5, Puyol 7, Alba 6, Busquets 5, Xavi 6, Fabregas 7, Alexis 7, Messi 8, Pedro 6. Subs: Iniesta 7, Song 6, Villa 6.