Wednesday, February 21, 2018 09:16:42 PM
AP, Barcelona :
Ernesto Valverde has worked two wonders in his first season in charge of Barcelona.
Lionel Messi no longer plays every second of every match, and Barcelona has a defense that matches the caliber of its attack.
For a second time, Valverde flouted his predecessors' policy of playing Messi in practically every match in the Champions League. Barcelona's star rested for the first hour of its 2-0 victory over Sporting Lisbon in their final group match on Tuesday.
Messi went on in the 62nd minute, just three minutes after Paco Alcacer headed Barcelona in front at Camp Nou. Messi then cued an attack with a through pass for Denis Suarez, whose cross was turned into his own net by Sporting defender Jeremy Mathieu in stoppage time.
Messi recently said that at age 30 he understands that "the season is long and you have to take care of yourself." He also didn't start Barcelona's 0-0 draw at Juventus two weeks ago, and was used as a second-half substitute.
"We always think that Messi can change the match and make us play better," Valverde said about the improvement in his team after Messi went on. "We know that our attack flows through him, thanks to his finishing touch and his ability to start our attacks. He sees passes nobody else does."
The Spanish side also confirmed its new-found strength under Valverde of disheartening rivals with an ironclad defense.
Neymar may have taken his irreplaceable verve out of Barcelona's arsenal when he bolted for Paris-Saint Germain last summer, but Valverde has grasped the opportunity to focus on his team's defense.
Barcelona conceded only once in all six of its group games, and it shares the top defense in the Spanish league along with Atletico Madrid, with seven goals conceded through 14 rounds.
As Valverde put it on Tuesday, he wants his team to "dominate games while creating scoring chances."
With Barcelona already qualified for the knockout rounds as Group D winner, Valverde gave starts to several players he normally uses as backups. Besides Alcacer and Suarez, Andre Gomes, Thomas Vermaelen, Lucas Digne, Aleix Vidal, and goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen also started.
Sporting needed to beat the Spanish side and hope Juventus didn't win at Olympiakos to make the last 16.But Juventus won in Greece 2-0 and advanced as the second-place finisher.
Sporting will move onto the Europa League as the third-place finisher.
"We put in a good tournament in what was a difficult group," Sporting defender Cristiano Piccini said. "We caused teams like Barcelona and Juventus some difficulties, showed we are a solid side and one that can compete with any team."
Barcelona increased its unbeaten run to 22 matches in all competitions this season, and 24 home matches in the Champions League, a streak that started in 2013.
Sporting coach Jorge Jesus reinforced his attack with Bas Dost and Gelson Martins at halftime, but after an initial reaction by the visitors it was Alcacer who put Barcelona in front when he sliced his header in from the near post for his first career goal in the competition.
"I am having a good season and making the most of the playing time I get," Alcacer said after notching his fifth goal in 10 appearances in this campaign.
Dost had a great chance to equalize three minutes later, only for Cillessen to deny his pointblank attempt with a reflex save.
Messi almost got a goal late but Sporting's Rui Patricio dived to palm away his shot.
Barcelona right back Nelson Semedo will miss the first leg of the last 16 tie for an accumulation of bookings after picking up a yellow card late in the first half.
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