Messi rests for first hour as Barca beats Sporting 2-0 in CL

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde watches prior the Champions League Group D soccer match between FC Barcelona and Sporting CP at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi rested for the first hour as Barcelona beat Sporting Lisbon 2-0 to close out its Champions League group stage on Tuesday.

With Barcelona already qualified for the knockout rounds as Group D winner, coach Ernesto Valverde gave starts at Camp Nou to several players he normally uses as backups.

Forward Paco Alcacer took full advantage of the opportunity by scoring with a header in the 59th minute, three minutes before Messi went on as a substitute. Denis Suarez, who played for the injured Andres Iniesta, provided the corner kick that Alcacer turned into the far side of the net for his first career goal in the competition.

Former Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu added an own-goal in stoppage time when he tried to clear a pass by Suarez heading for Alcacer in a scoring position.

Messi cued that second goal by playing Suarez through with a pass behind the defense.

”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.”

In his first season with the club, Valverde has broken with the policy of his predecessors to let Messi play practically every match, regardless of its importance.

Messi recently said that at age 30 he understands that ”the season is long and you have to take care of yourself.” He also started Barcelona’s 0-0 draw at Juventus two weeks ago from the bench before being used as a second-half substitute.

Sporting needed to beat the Spanish side and hope Juventus didn’t win at Olympiakos.

But Juventus won 2-0 in Greece and advanced as the second-place finisher. Sporting will move onto the Europa League as the third-place finisher.

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.

Thomas Vermaelen played in place of injured centerback Samuel Umtiti, who is expected to be our several weeks after hurting a muscle in his right thigh.

Valverde also gave starts to second-choice players Andre Gomes, Aleix Vidal and Lucas Digne.

Sporting coach Jorge Jesus reinforced his attack with Bas Dost and Gelson Martins at halftime, but after an initial reaction by the visitors it was Alcacer who put Barcelona in front when he sliced his header in from the near post.

Dost had a great chance to equalize three minutes later, only for goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to deny his pointblank attempt with a reflex save.

Messi almost got a goal late but Sporting’s Rui Patricio dived to palm away his shot.

Barcelona left back Nelson Semedo will miss the first leg of the round-of-16 tie for an accumulation of bookings after picking up a yellow card late in the first half.