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. Barce-lona's star rested for the first hour of its 2-0 victory over Sporting Lisbon in their final group match on Tuesday.
Atletico Madrid were eliminated from the Champions League after a 1-1 draw at Chelsea that denied the English side top spot in Group C. It was a depressing evening for both clubs at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday as neither got what they wanted from their final group fixture.
Atletico had to win to have a chance of advancing, but although Saul Niguez's second-half header put the visitors ahead, Chelsea drew level through a Stefan Savic own goal. 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. Sporting needed to beat the Spanish side and hope Juventus didn't win at Olympiakos to make the last 16.
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.It was a painful moment for Atletico and, after finishing as Champions League runners-up in 2014 and 2016, they are now consigned to the Europa League.
"It's part of football. It hurts but there are no excuses. The responsibility is ours," Simeone said."This can be a new challenge. Everything bad we can make into a positive."
Chelsea were already through to the knockout stages, but blew their chance to finish in first place and in theory earn an easier draw. Having lost and drawn against Roma, Chelsea finished second behind the Italians due to their inferior head-to-head record.
That is bad news for Antonio Conte's side, who could be pitted against Champions League heavyweights including Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain in next week's last 16 draw.
"We tried to play our game. We created many chances to score. When you play this way and create so much you must be satisfied," Conte said.
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