Celtic’s successful negotiation of the qualifying rounds has been rewarded with an appearance in the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2008.
Drawn in a tough group that includes Barcelona, the Scottish champions begin their campaign at home to Benfica of Portugal on Wednesday night (7.45pm, BST).
There have been six matches between the two clubs in the history of the European Cup and Champions League. In each of these meetings the home side has emerged victorious, with no away goals scored. More remarkably, the scores in the two matches played in each year in which they have met have always been symmetrical – in 2007/08 each recorded a 1-0 victory; in both 2006/07 and 1969/70 each recorded a 3-0 victory.
On paper, Celtic will face a tough task keeping that record of home victories and clean sheets intact, especially in light of a lacklustre start to their domestic season. They are currently in fifth place with two wins, two draws and one defeat to their name.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon made it clear in the wake of the club’s 2-1 defeat to St Johnstone that he will not accept the complacency he believes to be infecting certain players at the club. He threatened to drop those he feels are under-performing from the starting line-up for the Benfica clash and will be hoping for a far more determined performance from his charges.
If the Scottish champions are to harbour realistic hopes of progressing beyond the group stage then winning their home matches against Benfica and Spartak Moscow is paramount. With this in mind, Lennon is likely to send out his team to be the aggressors from the first whistle, hoping to overpower the visitors and force an early goal.
Their hopes of doing so will be aided by the absence of two of the key components of Benfica’s run to the last eight of last year’s Champions League. Solid Spanish defensive midfielder Javi Garcia and the energetic, inventive Belgian Alex Witsel have both departed for pastures new, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the team.
The match against Celtic will be the first in which Benfica coach Jorge Jesus is relieved of both players. At home, one would imagine that Nemanja Matic or Carlos Martins would replace Garcia, and that Pablo Aimar would be restored to first team action in place of Witsel. But in recent years Jesus has shown a reluctance to employ Aimar in Champions League away matches and therefore it could be that both Matic and Martins will start on Wednesday.
Benfica can lack a coherent purpose without Aimar – or latterly Witsel – pulling the strings, instead relying heavily on pace out wide and the strike partnership of Oscar Cardozo and Rodrigo to create chances. They are a less attractive and often less effective team when a creative presence is missing from their midfield.
If Scott Brown – presuming he is passed fit – and Victor Wanyama can get on top of Benfica’s central midfielders and deprive them of the necessary time on the ball to spot and play passes out wide or into the two front men then Celtic could enjoy some success.
Celtic vs Benfica Betting Tips Verdict
There is little particularly inspiring about Lennon’s outfit, but a Benfica side who have not yet adjusted to the departure of their two best midfielders look vulnerable to being bullied into submission. If Georgios Samaras, Gary Hooper or new signing Nicolas Fedor can find the back of the net, a positive start to Celtic’s campaign could be on the cards.