BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Despite Lionel Messi being one goal from equaling Gerd Mueller's all-time record of 85 in a calendar year, Barcelona could rest him from Wednesday's home match against Benfica in the Champions League.
Messi is scoring at a rate of two goals per game, so the record could fall at the Camp Nou. But Barcelona has already qualified for the Champions League knockout stages, and coach Tito Vilanova may opt to keep Messi in reserve for upcoming Spanish league matches against Betis and Atletico Madrid.
It's not an easy decision, because the club's fans are eager to celebrate another record at the Camp Nou. And there is no doubt Messi can deliver. In March, he became the first player to score five times in a Champions League game as Bayer Leverkusen was trounced 7-1.
Barcelona tops the Spanish league with the best ever start to a season. Its nearest rival is Atletico Madrid, six points behind. Archrival Real Madrid is third, 11 points off the pace. "This good start to our season has given us great peace of mind to tackle what remains," center back Gerard Pique said. "Things are looking good for us and if we are able to continue at this level, we will have won good ground."
After Benfica on Wednesday, Barcelona has four more games this year for Messi to score in. "To set records you need to play well and also have some luck, which we are having. You have to go match by match and the records will look after themselves," Pique said.
Vilanova will be tempted to let Messi have a crack at Mueller's record at home, given that Benfica has never won at the Camp Nou. The Portuguese club, the European champion in the 1960s, is weakened by injuries for the trip across the border.
Its Argentine midfield trio of Pablo Aimar, Enzo Perez and Eduardo Salvio is unavailable due to injury. Portugal midfielder Carlos Martins is also out with a hamstring problem. Benfica won its last two Champions League games, defeating Spartak Moscow and Celtic in Lisbon, but hasn't won away in the competition this season.
Benfica is unbeaten in the Portuguese league and shares top spot with Porto. Vilanova has chosen to rest Xavi Hernandez, Javier Mascherano, Pedro Rodriguez, Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas and playmaker Andres Iniesta, so the indications are that Messi will play.
Barcelona's injured list includes Dani Alves, Alexis Sanchez, Marc Bartra and Eric Abidal. Messi has found the net 26 times this season in all competitions for Barcelona. Pique said the squad was not complacent, despite its recent run of good performances.
"A lot of the season remains and experience tells us that we have to have our feet firmly on the ground," he said. "During (Pep) Guardiola's first year we had a similar advantage and had to take it to the wire and go to the return leg at the Bernabeu to win the league."
Celtic midfielder James Forrest said his team would not dwell on its disappointment at drawing 1-1 against second-tier Arbroath in the Scottish league as the squad refocuses its attention on attaining a berth in the last 16 in Europe.
Forrest believed Celtic will be switched on for Spartak Moscow on Wednesday. "If you get a bad result it means you can rectify it two or three days later by getting a good result in another game," he said. "The boys are full of confidence for Wednesday night and that's the main thing."
Celtic must better Benfica's result in Barcelona to seal a place in the knockout stages. Spartak Moscow fired coach Unai Emery following a 5-1 defeat in the Russian league to Dinamo Moscow on Nov. 25 and then lost its next match 4-2 against Zenit St. Petersburg. It was Spartak's seventh loss of the season.
Spartak was eliminated from the Champions League after a 3-0 loss to Barcelona.