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Paco Alcácer headed in a Barça corner kick for a 1–0 lead just before the hour mark. | MIGUEL RUIZ - FCB

FC Barcelona got a goal from Paco Alcácer and an own goal from one of its former players to seal a 2–0 victory over Sporting Clube Portugal on Wednesday night at Camp Nou, in the final game of the UEFA Champions League group stage.

It was a well-earned triumph for the Catalans, who won their third home game in three tries in this year’s tournament before a sparse crowd of 48,336 fans who showed up on a cold Mediterranean night for a game that had zero bearing on the Group D standings—at least for Barça, which came into the game having already wrapped up the top spot.

Alcácer gave Barça a 1-0 lead in the 59th minute when he nodded along a near-side corner kick that beat Sporting keeper Rui Patricio on the far side. 

Leo Messi replaced Aleix Vidal on the hour mark, followed by Barça goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen’s sublime one-on-one save to deny Sporting the tying goal.

The quick trio of events transformed what had been a relatively soporific match for the better part of an hour—both on the field and in the stands—and suddenly sprang it to life.

Barça brimmed with energy in the final half hour—and locked down possession with the addition of Sergio Busquets—further dashing Sporting’s hopes.

Then, in the 91st minute, former Barça defender Jérémy Mathieu redirected a Barça cross into his own net to make it 2–0, confirming Sporting’s exit and sending Barça off into the last 16 with a feel-good victory.

Sporting came into the game fighting for its life, and needed nothing less than a win—and help from Juventus in the form of a draw or a loss—to make the last 16.

But Barça, despite having nothing to play for, played some if its best football of the season.

Conspicuously absent from the starting lineup was Messi, who despite sitting just three Champions League goals shy of a hundred for his career, was relegated by Ernesto Valverde to backup duty—for the second straight Champions League game—to help minimize the wear and tear on the Argentinian superstar and ensure he remains firm and fit for the matches that truly count. 

But despite the absence of Messi, Valverde’s new-look lineup—intended to rest some of his regulars and dole out premium minutes under the anodized spotlight of Europe’s grandest stage—was surprisingly cohesive. 

Although Valverde’s experimental eleven sauntered off to the locker room at halftime mired in a scoreless deadlock, they had performed impressively, roughly doubling Sporting’s efforts in the possession and passing departments—66% to 34% and 379 to 196, respectively.

It was an admirable first-half performance for a unit that was technically not playing for anything other than pride, and doing it against an opponent whose only option was win—and get help from Juventus—or go home.

Juventus, meanwhile, was heading into the intermission of their match at Olympiacos, leading 1-0, provisionally earning themselves a last 16 berth and knocking Sporting out of the tournament.

Then Barça made it official.

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