The happy ending to Celtic’s Champions League fairy tale didn’t materialise on Tuesday night as Neil Lennon’s men were given a reality check in Lisbon. The story’s far from over, though, and the men in green and white can still get to the promised land provided they can figure out what went wrong in the thumping Portugese rain. Here are five things we learned from Benfica v Celtic.
Beating Barcelona didn’t change everything
The win over Barca was a great result. A fantastic result in fact, and one that means Celtic still have a decent chance of qualifying. But it wasn’t the dawning of a new era. It was easy to get carried away in the post-match euphoria and start thinking wild thoughts about Celtic being European big-hitters, able to match anyone. Now it can be seen for what it was – a fine individual performance and a result that put the team back in with a shout in the group. Before the group began, away to Benfica looked a tough fixture and one that Celtic would do well to get anything from. That’s exactly how it proved. The only thing that changed in between was the expectation level of the fans. We have a clearer idea of where Celtic stand now – they’re not world-beaters but they’re still a vastly more accomplished side than many believed them to be at the start of the campaign.
Celtic are still vulnerable to quick passing teams
There were points during the game where Celtic just couldn’t live with Benfica. The sheer pace of passing and movement had the Hoops chasing their tails. Efe Ambrose kept losing Oscar Cardozo. The world-class defensive pairing of Luisao and Ezequiel Garay was comfortable enough handling Hooper and Samaras to let the full backs plough forward and help outnumber Lustig and Matthews. Nemanja Matic was a constant thorn in the flesh, moving forward from deep and spraying passes around. Not only that but every Benfica player had the ability to run at Celtic. Ultimately, Celtic were beaten by a better technical team and they have to find a new level of awareness and organisation to face teams that play with that kind of pace, mobility and flair.
Scott Brown needs an operation and a rest
The captain has played through the pain barrier all season, fighting a degenerative hip condition that has plagued him for some time. Lennon has tried to get the best out of him, carefully choosing when he plays and when he recuperates. Broonie has popped up for most of the big games and has, as a rule, performed well but Lisbon was a bridge too far. He was nowhere near his combative best and by the time he was substituted he was literally on his knees. It’s time for the skipper to get the medical attention he needs, even if it means a long spell on the sidelines. He’ll be missed, but Beram Kayal has been warming the bench since his own return from injury and he’ll be a more than able replacement. With Wanyama making himself virtually undroppable and the likes of Dylan McGeough also banging on the door of the first team, midfield is a well covered area, so Brown should get his operation and take as much time off as he needs to get back to his best.
There will definitely be European football at Parkhead after Christmas
Celtic still have a very good chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. They simply have to get a better result at home to Spartak Moscow than Benfica do at Camp Nou. With Barcelona already through, it’s likely to be their reserves that play, but Celtic fans will be cautiously optimistic that a second string will still be enough to get the job done. Spartak’s mauling at the hands of the Catalans means they will finish bottom of the group regardless of what happens in the next round of matches. With third place the worst possible outcome for Celtic, they will at least be in the hat for the Europa League in the New Year. Anticlimactic as that would be after the highs of the current campaign, it’s not a bad safety net and one that some fans would have taken before the group started. It shows how far the team has come in a short time that this outcome might be seen as a disappointment.
The fairytale isn’t over
It would have been beautiful and poetic to qualify with a game to spare in the city where Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup. It wasn’t to be. The situation is now more critical and the Hoops’ fate is not entirely in their own hands. There’s now a reliance on Barcelona to field a strong enough team to beat Benfica. There’s also a need for Celtic to lift their heads and raise the game once more to beat a Spartak side that, despite its disappointing campaign, is still a potent force. But only Barcelona have ever won a Champions League game at Parkhead and a draw with the Russians will do it, as long as Benfica are beaten at Camp Nou. And after all, it was the shock 3-2 win in Moscow that first raised expectations and gave Celtic a real chance to go through – there’d be a certain poetic symmetry if it was against the same opposition that they finished the job. There may yet be a happy ending…