It is a measure of how far we have come during this Champions League campaign that a 2-1 defeat away to Benfica, leaving us favourites to qualify in second place for the Champions League knockout stage and assured of European football after Christmas, is a disappointment.
Unlike previous defeats in this competition, this one has not limited our ambitions.
Around this time of previous Champions League campaigns I’ve opined that Uefa Cup/Europa League qualification would be preferable to finishing second in the group stage, leading to inevitable elimination to a group winner. Teams who drop out of the Champions League have the prospect of a decent run in the Europa League, earning more coefficient points and potentially more cash, whereas Celtic never convinced me they could reach the last eight of the Champions League.
This time is different. We got it wrong last night and as a result lost the head-to-head against Benfica but this was not the case against Barcelona. Most of the current group leaders are better than Celtic, all would create more chances and have more possession against us, but here’s the rub, Celtic can score goals against anyone and can defend remarkably well.
Georgios Samaras has now scored in three consecutive group stage away games; he scored in all of Celtic’s five away games in Europe this season, surely a record. This is beyond a mere statistical oddity, it’s a result of a strategy which Benfica, Barcelona and Spartak have been unable to cope with (last night’s block-and-free-header routine was a thing of technical brilliance).
We’ve scored five goals in total in our three away group stage games. In the eight away games in the competition proper before this season, since losing in Copenhagen, we scored only once (remember against whom?)! In short, we can go anywhere and play effective counter-attacking football which even the best team in history had trouble dealing with.
That doesn’t mean we are champions-elect, of course. Benfica, who are a worthy team but are not tier-one material, got the better of us. They played to form last night and Celtic dipped. Scott Brown was clearly unfit, Charlie Mulgrew may-or-may-not have declared himself ill before kick-off but his condition did not help (stunning corner aside).
Neil also left out Kris Commons. Kris’s form has shaded since The Beating of Barca, so I was not surprised to see him on the bench, but did you notice we started to get balls into the Benfica box after he came on? More of this and I fancy Benfica would have yielded. In his post-match comments Neil Lennon reminded us his players are young and will learn from the experience.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the manager is also young and learning as he goes along. His tactical decisions have been the real revelation of this group, even if he did leave Kris out and his gamble with Scott Brown didn’t work. His progress as a manager has been, as our old friend might say, astonishing.
Fraser Forster provided more evidence of his outstanding ability. Mikael Lustig and Kelvin Wilson looked perfectly at ease with under frenetic pressure but Efe Ambrose particularly impressed. I’ve watched Celtic defences for decades and we always seem to have a ‘junior partner’ but not now.
The defence made two mistakes last night but in all their games together they have yet to conjure up a Big Dan Moment.
My objectives for this Champions League campaign have already been surpassed but expectation levels are never level, so let’s take care of Spartak and see where the adventure goes next.
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