Football Features

“A frustrating yet promising display” – Five things learned as Benfica frustrate Barcelona in the Champions League

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:36, 23 November 2021

In a dynamic night of football, Barcelona and Benfica played out a thrilling 0-0 draw in the Champions League.

The result left Barcelona needing to go to Germany and beat Bayern Munich away from home on matchday six or risk missing out on the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

What did we learn?

1. Dembélé the dynamo

Barcelona were bright against Benfica, with Xavi’s impact on the club already being evident as the Blaugrana pressed and passed and hummed with a familiar rhythm. However due to injuries and Sergio Aguero’s health problems, Barcelona lacked a serious presence up-top.

Memphis Depay, Yusuf Demir and Jordi Alba nominally led the line but none offered anything like the kind of penetration you would want. And when they did get through, they didn’t really test the goalkeeper.

Then Ousmane Dembélé came on, fresh from his latest injury. And he took the game by the scruff of the neck. The electricity in the Camp Nou when the Frenchman was on the ball was almost palpable. The near-50,000 people were roaring whenever he touched the ball, and Benfica were shaking like leaves.

Jorge Jesus made changes to try and contain Dembélé but nothing could stop him. He would escape his marker and send crosses into the box or roll in gorgeous through-balls. Or even take a peach of a corner only for Gerard Piqué to head over. Nothing quite came off, of course, but that was mostly down to lacking a team-mate on his level (Ansu Fati, basically) and a great save from Odisseas Vlachodimos.

But the potential of a fully fit Ousmane Dembélé in Xavi’s Barcelona is enormous.

2. Otamendi The Barbarian

As much as Barcelona’s forwards were profligate and nowhere near as sharp as they should have been, part of the reason the game finished 0-0 was the absolutely incredible display from centre-back Nicolas Otamendi.

Not only did the Argentine blast in a thunderous goal that was ruled out for the ball going out of play in the build-up (seriously he smashed that thing in with his left-foot with the Leo Messi-esque precision) but his defending was just monstrous.

Otamendi ended the night with a stat-line of 3 tackles, 5 interceptions and 8 clearances. That reads impressive but to see it in action was the really impressive thing, the mindblowing way he would intervene at the last possible second to block Barcelona took the breath away. His block on Dembélé as the Frenchman was about to surge into the area was a particular highlight.

3. Memphis is alright

Memphis Depay joined Barcelona in the summer, fulfilling a childhood dream in doing so. He took a paycut on an already smaller than expected wage to help Barcelona out in their financial woes. He has carried himself with maturity and dignity during a difficult time in Catalunya and scored some big goals as well.

In general, he’s been alright.

That’s what we saw tonight, as well. A player who is alright. He makes good movements, nice runs, but when it comes to delivering, to stepping up and providing Champions League quality, he’s perhaps not quite at that level. In part because he’s all right, foot that is.

Time and again at the Camp Nou, Memphis had the chance to make things happen and do damage to Benfica but his reluctance to use his left, even in a swinging hopeful effort, means he takes too long to try a decisive shot and gives the likes of Nico Otamendi time to make a crucial block or tackle, as he did when stopping Memphis from what should have been a surefire goal early in the second-half.

Memphis Depay is a good player, and he’ll be good for Barcelona, but will he ever be great? That’s up for debate, and unfortunately for the Blaugrana they very much need him to be great.

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4. Busquets and Gavi hit Spain form

For the majority of the season, Sergio Busquets looked finished. And Gavi, the young maverick who looked so bright in pre-season, began to look a bit like a rabid hatchet man, a prospect in name only who was only good for fouling people in a Barcelona shirt.

Then they went away and played for Spain and were resplendent, before returning to their nonsense levels when they came back to play for Barcelona. It was clear that they, more than anyone, were suffering under Ronald Koeman.

Today, with Xavi in charge, Busquets and Gavi shone brighter than any other starters on the pitch.

Busquets ran the show, making 5 tackles and 2 interceptions, taking 111 touches, completing a game-high 79/96 passes and even created 3 chances with some raking penetrative passes. He was back in business.

Gavi, meanwhile, was channelling Andres Iniesta with unerring likeness. He completed a staggering 97% of his passes (34/35) while creating 2 chances, making 4 tackles and most impressively completing 4/6 dribbles. He looked elusive and dangerous and remember, he’s only 17.

With Xavi in charge, these two are going to be Barcelona’s talismanic presences in midfield.

5. Xavi into the lion’s den

So the game ended 0-0. That’s not the result Barcelona deserved, but it’s the one their finishing gave them right now. A frustrating yet promising display. What that means is that they’re still second in Group E, with 7 points. They currently sit behind Bayern who have won every single game so far this season, scoring 19 times and conceding just three. They are looking lean and mean and, quite frankly, unstoppable.

And Barcelona have to beat them. In Germany.

The Blaugrana are two points ahead of Benfica right now, but the Portuguese side have a gimmie home match against Dinamo Kyiv on matchday six. That’s a surefire win for them, and of course as they beat Benfica on matchday two they hold the head-to-head advantage over Barcelona so if Barcelona somehow sneak a draw in Bavaria, as long as Benfica win (and they surely will) they will progress.

Which means Xavi has to take his young side, both in the terms that he’s only just taken charge and also that it’s full of young players, into the Allianz Arena and beat mighty Bayern.

Bayern, notably, have lost just one of their last 10 matches at home in Europe, a 2-3 defeat against PSG last season when Robert Lewandowski was out injured. He’s not injured now.

Sure, Bayern are through as group winners and the match against Barcelona comes just four days after their top of the table Bundesliga clash with Borussia Dortmund, so maybe one could argue the Bayern players won’t be fully focused on the game, and that’s even if Julian Nagelsmann chooses to field his first-choice XI rather than rest his superstars and play the back-ups.

But if you’re Julian Nagelsmann, and you have the chance to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League, surely it’s a chance you take? The Blaugrana will be hoping for Nagelsmann to have put his focus elsewhere, making their job much easier. They were very good against Benfica but this team is still a work in process whereas Bayern are a finely honed juggernaut. And right now, without Ansu Fati and Pedri, and with Xavi only just settling into life at Barcelona, a tie this massive may have come too early for the Blaugrana and that juggernaut might just run them down in Bavaria.

Barcelona in the Europa League? Don’t rule it out!