Barca end group stages on a high with victory over Sporting
The Catalan giants had already secured top spot in Group D ahead of this clash, but second place was still up for grabs for Sporting, who needed to win and hope Juventus slipped up away to Olympiacos.
Although Sporting were the team with something to play for, it was Barcelona who started the game on top, and they were dominating possession in the early stages as expected.
The Barca attack was looking a little less sharp given the significant absentee, and Rui Patricio was rarely called into action in the Sporting goal in the first half.
Aleix Vidal and Andre Gomes both went close to giving the home side the lead around the 20 minute mark but Vidal hit over the bar after a pass inside from Luis Suarez, and Gomes’ effort whistled just past the near post after he robbed William Carvalho of the ball in the Sporting half.
Patricio was finally tested after 25 minutes when Luis Suarez touched the ball past Jeremy Mathieu before turning and bursting into the box, but the Portuguese goalkeeper was out quickly to stifle his shot.
The away side offered little attacking threat throughout the first half and when they did get the chance to counter they didn’t have enough men getting forward, which allowed Valverde’s mean to cope with them with ease.
After the break, Jorge Jesus decided to make a double change for Sporting, and one of those substitutes, Gelson Martins, almost made a quick impact. After 53 minutes, Martins chested the ball down and beat his man before shooting from just inside the area, but he skewed his attempt wide.
Barca were still struggling to break the deadlock but on the hour mark they finally made the breakthrough as Lionel Messi was preparing to come on.
Denis Suarez swung a corner in from the left and Paco Alcacer rose at the near post to head past Patricio into the far corner and make it 1-0 to the hosts.
Straight after the goal, Barcelona’s main man did indeed come off the bench to rapturous applause from the home crowd, and suddenly the team had a bit more purpose.
Jasper Cillessen was called into action for the first time after 62 minutes when Bas Dost fired goalwards from close-range after Bruno Fernandes’ perfect cross, but the Dutch keeper was equal to the effort and kept the score at 1-0.
With Juventus leading at Olympiacos, both sides fates were all but sealed, and they started to play as if that were the case, with very little urgency or goal mouth action.
Messi went close after 82 minutes as he turned on a sixpence before attempting to curl the ball into the corner from the edge of the box, but Patricio got down well to turn the ball behind.
Barca were pushing for a second in the final stages and Alcacer almost got it, but his dinked effort was deflected wide of the post after Messi threaded the ball through to him inside the area.
Valverde’s men did indeed double their lead in stoppage time and it came from a former Barcelona man. Denis Suarez broke down the right before crossing into the box, and Mathieu diverted the ball into his own net as he stretched to try and keep it out.
After the fairly routine win, Barcelona finish the group stages on top of Group D with 14 points and head into the last 16 unbeaten in the opening stage.
Meanwhile, after Juventus’ win in Olympiacos, Sporting finish third and will head into the Europa League.