Denis Suarez impresses as Barcelona ease to victory vs. Sporting
Barcelona saw off Sporting Lisbon with a comfortable 2-0 victory to round off a satisfying if unremarkable Champions League group-stage campaign. Lionel Messi started as a substitute at a chilly, half-empty Camp Nou and, after a dull first half, Paco Alcacer headed home Denis Suarez's corner to break the deadlock. Former Barcelona player Jeremy Mathieu gave the home fans something extra to cheer on when he scored an own goal just before full-time; fans chanted his name louder than they ever did while he was a Blaugrana player.
Even though top spot in the group was sewn up before tonight, Ernesto Valverde will be happy with a win that keeps momentum building. He was also able to rest several first-team players and saw good performances from some of his second string like Denis and Alcacer.
When Barcelona are without Messi (30 years old), Sergio Busquets (29) and Andres Iniesta (33), they look a worse team and the worry is that nobody seems capable of replacing them. The first half lacked invention and only after Messi came on did they slice Sporting open more regularly.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Valverde made eight changes from the side that started against Celta Vigo on Saturday, resting the bulk of his first team ahead of a tricky trip to Villarreal. In the second half he brought on Messi to cheer up the fans and Busquets to give him some practice at centre-back, having also given Ivan Rakitic a run-out in the pivot role.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Jasper Cillessen, 7 -- Playing in goal for Barcelona is difficult because you have to stay alert through long periods of possession, then make a vital intervention when necessary. Cillessen did just that, denying Bas Dost from point blank range with his thigh.
DF Nelson Semedo, 5 -- Brought down Bruno Cesar with a clumsy, oafish barge to earn a booking and suspension from the next Champions League match. Still bedding into the team.
DF Gerard Pique, 6 -- He has not enjoyed the best of seasons on a personal level but did not put a foot wrong on the night, although the defence was helped by Sporting's poor attacking play.
DF Thomas Vermaelen, 6 -- Continues picking up match fitness and getting minutes under his belt. Showed Valverde that he can be relied upon in the weeks ahead.
DF Lucas Digne, 6 -- An adept display defensively, in which he was never caught out and tried to get forward when he could, though he lacks the dynamism of Jordi Alba.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 7 -- He has lacked sparkle going forward this season and playing in the pivot position suited him. Rakitic put his foot in to break up Sporting attacks and worked extremely hard.
MF Andre Gomes, 7 -- Made his first start since returning from injury as one of Barcelona's midfield trio and delivered a good display, winning the ball back and helping circulate it.
MF Denis Suarez, 8 -- Started slowly and still needs to improve in defensive areas, but his contributions led to both goals. The first was an inch-perfect corner that Alcacer headed in, then a low cross was turned into his own net by Mathieu.
FW Aleix Vidal, 6 -- Utilised on the right of the attack but put in an average performance; for what it lacked in incision, there was plenty of running and effort. Replaced by Messi.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 -- The striker looked sharper in the first half than in recent games; one neat piece of footwork earning him a sight of goal but Rui Patricio was equal to his prodded effort. Faded in the second period.
FW Paco Alcacer, 7 -- Played on the left of the attack and worked extremely hard, often chasing back into his own half. He was rewarded for his efforts with a goal from a firm header.
FW Lionel Messi, 7 -- Brought on in the 61st minute and changed the game from a dull affair into something much more watchable. His passing was superb and Sporting's defence went from comfortable to terrified instantly.
DF Sergio Busquets, 6 -- Played in an unfamiliar centre-back position but was untroubled, showing Valverde he can be used here if needed in the future with Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti injured.
MF Paulinho, NR -- Replaced Suarez in the final stages to help shore up the midfield and see the game out.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.