Barcelona's Champions League last-16 hopes in the balance after Benfica stalemate at Camp Nou
Champions League Group E, Camp Nou, Spain: Barcelona 0 Benfica 0
Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique reacts after missing a goal opportunity during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match between FC Barcelona and SL Benfica, at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on November 23, 2021
Barcelona's hopes of progressing in the Champions League were dealt a blow as they were held to a goalless draw by Benfica in an absorbing night at Camp Nou in Group E.
Xavi - taking charge of his first European game as Blaugrana boss - must now guide his side to victory at already-qualified Bayern Munich in the final group game to guarantee progression to the last 16. Failing that, Barcelona would need Benfica to drop points at home to Dinamo Kyiv, who are bottom of the group on one point.
Handed a surprise start in attack, 18-year-old Austrian Yusuf Demir went closest for Barcelona in the opening 45 minutes when he struck the woodwork with a delicious curler, but Xavi's side also survived a couple of first-half scares.
Roman Yaremchuk was brought into Benfica's XI for his aerial presence and Jorge Jesus' decision almost paid dividends. He looked destined to break the deadlock but saw his stooped header blocked by the knee of Marc Andre Ter Stegen.
Moments later, Nicolas Otamendi beat the Barcelona goalkeeper with a thumping effort following a corner - but the ball was adjudged to have strayed out of play a moment earlier.
Barcelona failed to replicate their high-tempo performance of the first half after the restart and in the 66th minute, Xavi gambled on the fitness of Ousmane Dembele, who replaced Demir. The 24-year-old made an immediate impact with his skill and pace, creating a chance for Frenkie de Jong, whose bullet header was kept out by Odisseas Vlachodimos.
Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo thought he had won it for the hosts when he converted from Jordi Alba's delicious cross in the 83rd minute - but he was just a fraction offside.
Gerard Pique then spurned a gilt-edged opportunity when he headed wide from point-blank range, but Benfica ought to have won it right at the death when substitute Haris Seferovic inexplicably toe-poked wide with the goal gaping - a quite unbelievable miss which left his manager sunk to the ground with his head in his hands.
Benfica will still be happiest with the draw and must now be classed as favourites to finish runners-up to leaders Bayern and progress in the competition at Barcelona's expense.
Barcelona's Memphis Depay
Image credit: Getty Images
TALKING POINT - Toothless Barca now facing mammoth task to progress
He may only be in the job but new Barcelona boss Xavi has already made a clearly visible difference in style and approach. Blaugrana are pressing much more intensely and passing the ball much more sharply. In the first half particularly, the hosts resembled a Barcelona side fitting of the great name. Gone are the majority of their big names and yet the free-flowing, absorbing football was back on show.
However, one glaring weakness is still evident: a killer touch in attack. And it is this weakness that may well end up costing Barcelona a place in the latter stages of Europe's elite competition for the first time in 20 years.
They certainly have it all to do when they travel to the formidable Allianz Arena for a titanic clash with Bayern Munich. Of course, the Bavarians are already safely through, but they've won all five of their games so far and will be relentless in their effort to maintain a perfect record.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica)
The former Manchester City defender looked back to his best in the colours of Benfica as he proved a rock at the back for the visitors, making countless blocks and interceptions and winning headers. It would have been fitting for his star performance had his first-half goal counted.
34' - Benfica should score! Set-pieces probably represent Benfica's best chance of breaching Barcelona's tonight and now they have a corner. Everton delivers... Yaremchuk attacks it with a stooped header and Ter Stegen keeps it out with his leg!
35' - Goal ruled out! Benfica have the ball in the back of the net - but it's not going to count! Otamendi thrashes it home from the edge of the box, but the ball had strayed out of play a moment earlier!
43' - Off the crossbar! Oh, how has this not gone in?! Demir looks to have broken the deadlock with a delicious curler from the right side of the penalty area. With the goalkeeper beaten, it looks for all the world it's creeping in at the far post... but no, it crashes off the woodwork and bounces to safety.
68' - De Jong... no! Dembele makes an immediate impact! With lightning pace, he creates the space for a cross and puts it right on the head of De Jong. But his bullet header from point-blank range is tipped over by Vlachodimos!
83' - Goal ruled out! What a delivery from Alba to pick out Araujo at the far post and he makes no mistake with his finish to send the home supporters wild! But their celebrations are cut short - he's a fraction offside! And to make matters worse, Araujo has either pulled a muscle or is suffering from cramp!
90'+2 - Miss! Depay delivers the corner... Pique has a great chance to win the game for Barcelona but fails to find the target with a header from point-blank range! Ought to do better! It fell to the wrong man!
90'+4 - Miss!!! How have Benfica not won this game?! An unbelievable miss here from Seferovic! With the goal gaping, he inexplicably misses the target! Jorge Jesus is on the ground holding his head!