Perfect in Spain, Barcelona now targets Benfica


BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -Five days before an always-intense match against Real Madrid, Barcelona can take a big step toward the knockout round of the Champions League when it visits Benfica on Tuesday.

Barcelona matched its best Spanish league start with a comeback 3-2 win at Sevilla on Saturday, and coach Tito Vilanova wants his team to focus on the Portuguese club and not be distracted by Madrid's visit to the Camp Nou on Sunday.

"This game (against Benfica) is the more important game," said Vilanova. "The game this weekend, against Madrid, will come soon enough. Besides, it is always better to have won the game before, it gives you added confidence.

"Benfica is playing at home and I don't think they will pack in their defense. They say a draw will suit them, but they will go out looking to win. There isn't enough margin to speculate and they have to take advantage of playing at home. It won't be an easy game."

Also, Spartak Moscow hosts Celtic looking for its first victory in the other Group G match.

Four-time champion Barcelona leads the group with three points. Celtic and Benfica are second with one point each after drawing in their opener.

Lionel Messi has scored 10 goals in nine games for Barcelona this season. His team needed Messi's late goals to beat Spartak at home in their first match. Since then, the Argentina forward has gone two outings without finding the back of the net.

Last weekend, Sevilla's defense was successful at stopping Messi from scoring, so he turned playmaker to assist Cesc Fabregas and David Villa for two goals in the last four minutes to secure Barcelona's sixth win in as many league games.

"It is increasingly difficult. We want to attack but teams play farther and farther back in their area," Messi told Spanish newspaper El Pais. "Our opponents know us well and look for our weak points, and if they are lucky and score off a counterattack they can make things difficult for us."

Barcelona will be bolstered by the return of Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Adriano from injury, while midfielder Thiago Alcantara will be sidelined for two months after hurting a ligament in his right knee in Seville.

Benfica may be the leader of the Portuguese league, but it is winless in its last 12 games against Spanish competition.

"(Barcelona is) the top team in the world in planned attacking," said Benfica coach Jorge Jesus. "But they had some problems against Spartak and Sevilla which prove that they are not perfect. You could see why Barcelona were losing those matches. When they lose the ball, the opponent counterattacked sometimes with danger and managed to score."

Lima, an offseason transfer from Braga, scored both of Benfica's goals Friday, taking his tally to three goals in as many league matches.

Benfica will be without first-choice center forward Oscar Cardozo because of injury, while its midfield has been weakened by the recent transfers of Javi Garcia to Manchester City and Axel Witsel to Zenit St. Petersburg.

With Barcelona favored to win at Benfica and eventually take first place in the group, Spartak has a good opportunity to move into position to fight for second against Celtic.

The Scottish champions have lost 19 of their 20 away games all time in the Champions League, with a sole 1-1 draw at Barcelona in 2004.

"We know it's going to be very tough," Celtic coach Neil Lennon said. "Spartak Moscow are an excellent side with excellent coach. Going forward they have players who are very quick, strong and skillful. We will have to defend well and counterattack as best we can."

Spartak Moscow rallied to beat Amkar in the Russian League 3-1 Saturday and is tied for fourth place in the standings.

Spartak midfielder Aiden McGeady will face his former team. He made 251 appearances for Celtic from 2004-10.

Spartak coach Unai Emery will be missing goalkeeper Andrey Dikan (right shoulder), midfielder Jose Jurado (leg muscle), and Romulo (knee ligament tear). In the opening game, Romulo scored against Barcelona before Messi took over.

Copyright 2015 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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