After a four-year exile from the group stages of the Champions’ League, Celtic mark their return against Benfica at Parkhead. From the poor, sometimes humiliating, European results of recent years, through the partially successful salvage job in last season’s Europa League, to the comfortable qualifying ties against HJK and Helsingborgs, there’s a sense among some supporters that the wheel has turned full circle and the team have arrived back at the level of European respectability of a few years ago. However, there’s a sense among other supporters that we’re still not really very good and we’re going to get the mother and father of all pumpings now that we’re here. Who’s right? Time will tell, but here are the arguments.
Why we might do well
Neil Lennon’s side, while being youthful, energetic and hungry, has had over two years to gel and have gained invaluable experience. That experience has come through domestic triumph and creditable performances in the Europa League, but also through learning lessons the hard way in getting stuffed by sides that were mediocre, but evidently way more street-smart (Braga, Sion, Utrecht, erm …Ross County).
Those experiences have toughened them up, smartened them up and bonded a selection of decent individuals into a proper team that fight for each other and for the jerseys. Lennon himself has matured, is starting to control his emotions and think tactically like a proper manager. While we’re clearly behind the three Group G opponents technically, we’re nobody’s mugs and whoever wants to beat us is going to have to work pretty hard.
We haven’t yet faced a quality side in Europe this season
Why we might get gubbed
Domestic performances have been poor this season. Defeat to St Johnstone and just two wins from five SPL games won’t exactly have had Portuguese spies quivering in their high tops. The players may have been distracted by the Champions League but still, Celtic are not exactly on fire right now. We haven’t yet faced a quality side in Europe this season - Helsinki and Helsingborgs are not in the same league as the challenges to come, and in qualifying through a relatively easy route, we’ve flattered to deceive.
The manager doesn’t know his best side – in shuffling the pack regularly this season, it’s not obvious what he sees as his strongest eleven. And finally; this is Celtic in Europe for God’s sake; there’s always a chance it’ll go completely tits-up.
Inconclusive ... so where does this leave us?
One thing’s certain: to have realistic hopes of qualification, even for the Europa League parachute place, Celtic need three home points against Benfica. We have a bit of recent history with this lot, as with all three opponents, and in terms of outcomes, if not goal difference, honours are relatively even. However, Celtic have gone significantly backwards, and then forwards a bit again, since the last meeting so it’s difficult to say how we compare now.
They will play with pace and flair, and Celtic must be ready to combat that
Benfica are a weakened side, having just lost big names in Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel and Javier Saviola. Captain and imposing stopper Luisao is suspended, but they’ve brought in Ezequiel Garay, and still have quality in the likes of Carlos Martins, Oscar Cardozo and Maxi Pereira. They will play with pace and flair, and Celtic must be ready to combat that.
How that happens is down to Neil Lennon. He’s rotated players and changed formations this season and now it’s decision time. Does he bring in the new boys like Miku, Lassad and Efe Ambrose? These players were brought in specifically to make the side stronger for the Champions league but they have had practically no opportunity to settle into the team. It’s likely he’ll go with the established players who made it this far.
Next decision - does he flood the midfield to stifle the pace and precision of the Portuguese, or play with two strikers and natural width to open them up and get balls into the box? That one’s harder to call, but he has shown a preference for playing one up front, with Kris Commons or Georgios Samaras behind Gary Hooper. He may well opt for this again on Wednesday, though Samaras will miss the game.
However the manager lines them up, the mentality of the players will be crucial. They’ve shown some complacency in the league this season - any of that in Europe and our goose is unequivocally cooked. Conversely, they have to adopt a little swagger. It’s Celtic’s heads and hearts that have let them down in recent failed Euro campaigns. In certain games they’ve looked jumpy from the kick-off, with nerves causing schoolboy errors that handed out goals on a plate. They must play with courage and pride. They must be composed. They must believe that they’re in the group stages on merit, and that they’re not there to make up the numbers.
They must not allow themselves to be pushed around. Martin O’Neill built a Celtic team of warriors, leaders and bullies, and it served him pretty well in Europe - his protégé Lennon must strive for the same. Get heads and hearts in the right place and the feet will surely follow. Bottle it and Celtic will be out of Europe before you can say ‘deck the halls’.
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