CELTIC manager Neil Lennon last night lamented his team’s poorest display in the Champions League so far this season and faced up to the prospect of trying to reach the last 16 of the tournament without captain Scott Brown and key midfielder Victor Wanyama.
The cost of a 2-1 defeat to Benfica in Lisbon was not limited to being leapfrogged in Group G by the Portuguese side, which leaves Celtic’s fate in the balance ahead of their final fixture at home to Spartak Moscow on Wednesday, 5 December.
Lennon’s team need to better whatever result Benfica achieve away to Barcelona the same night and will have to do so without the services of Brown and Wanyama.
Lennon revealed that Brown is being sent for surgery on his long-standing hip problem, facing up to ten weeks on the sidelines, while Wanyama last night picked up a booking which means he is suspended for the game against Spartak.
Celtic will now finish no worse than third in Group G, meaning they will, at the very least, reach the last 32 of the Europa League, but Lennon’s focus remains firmly on trying to make it to the knockout stage of the elite tournament.
“We were picking up a few knocks tonight and players are running on empty a bit at the moment,” said Lennon. “We are going to have to look at it carefully. Scott Brown has run his course now. We might have to book him in for surgery. We are looking at him being out for eight to ten weeks.
“He has been pushing himself to the limit and we can’t keep asking him to put himself through the kind of distress he is obviously feeling at the end of his time on the pitch.
“He has been a huge player for us this season, but it’s time for him to get the problem addressed. Hopefully he will have something good to look forward to in the new year.
“I’m hoping to get a few more back in time for Spartak in a couple of weeks. Hopefully James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre will be back, while Gary Hooper will be more up to speed. Miku and Lassad will also be more up to speed and Thomas Rogne should be fit pretty soon. The squad is stretched. We need to nurse a few through. Charlie Mulgrew came off at half-time tonight. He had just run his course, he has played 26 games already this season. We are pushing him to the limits at the moment.”
Mulgrew created Celtic’s goal for Georgios Samaras, which levelled the scores after Ola John’s seventh minute opener for Benfica, but the hosts claimed all three points through Ezequiel Garay’s 71st minute strike. “I’m disappointed at the manner of the goals we conceded,” added Lennon.
“I thought there was a lack of composure to our play at times. There was a little bit of nervousness about us, which was understandable for a young side. Once we got the goal, we showed a little bit more belief. But, in the second half, we went back into our shell a little bit. We decided to change it to three in midfield, just to try and get more of the ball.
“But our passing was poor at times tonight, our first touch let us down. We were not decisive enough in our overall performance. Against a side as good as Benfica, if you keep giving the ball away, eventually the pressure will tell.
“The second goal was a poor one to lose. We cleared the box at a corner, but didn’t pick up the ball as it came back in. Garay was left with a free shot at goal. We had a couple of really good chances at the end to get a draw, but, again, it really summed up our night. We were just lacking in composure. You’ve got to give Benfica credit as well.”
Lennon admitted he would have welcomed the prospect of going into the final group game with a chance of progress when the draw was first made.
“I think everyone would have taken that at the start,” he said. “The players have been superb in this competition. They have been exceptional and made real names for themselves. They are still in with a really good chance of qualifying. That was the target when we set out.
“The squad didn’t cost a lot of money to put together and they have grown as the competition has gone on. This was probably our most disappointing performance over the five games in the group so far, but we are at home in the last game which is a big boost for us. Anything can happen.
“The players are disappointed. They were 90 minutes away from qualifying. It’s never easy away from home in Europe – our record isn’t that good – but we have scored in every away game and are making progress. It’s great to have European football for the new year, but we want to progress in this competition and will do everything we can to do that.”
It remains to be seen whether Barcelona field a less than full strength team at home to Benfica in a fortnight and Lennon is unsure whether Celtic or the Portuguese side are now best placed to qualify alongside the Catalan giants.
“It is difficult to say,” he said. “What we have to do is win at home and make Benfica win in the Nou Camp, which is no easy feat. We can’t think about the other fixture. What we have to do is focus our minds on beating Spartak which is not an easy thing to do.
“I can’t comment on other teams’ line-ups. Other managers have to do the best for their own club. I’m only focusing on the Spartak game, I’m not even looking to the other result. We have to win our game. If we do that, then we make Benfica have to win in Barcelona. The onus is on us to do that.”
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus believes his team can win in the Nou Camp and insists they deserve to reach the last 16 at Celtic’s expense. “Tonight we proved that Barcelona and Benfica are the two best teams in this group,” said Jesus. “We lost a bad goal at a corner, but Celtic would not have deserved a draw. Nothing is impossible for us when we go to Barcelona.”