Champions League Group G: Celtic 0 - 0 Benfica
CELTIC found themselves acting out a familiar script on their return to Champions League group phase action as they endured an evening of frustration which has already lengthened the odds on their prospects of further progress in the tournament.
Referee: N Rizzoli (Ita)
Just as in their previous six appearances in this stage of European football’s elite competition, Celtic were unable to mark Matchday One with a victory. The point secured from a largely undistinguished goalless draw was a just outcome, but one which was more welcome for a Benfica side whose strategy was generally devised to avoid defeat. The Lisbon club did so for the first time in four visits to Celtic Park, a rivalry stretching back to the 1969-70 season, and left the Scottish champions fully aware that they will not be able to rely on their home form alone in this campaign if they hope to reach the last 16.
Neil Lennon’s side badly lacked a cutting edge, with an injury sustained by Gary Hooper restricting their most prolific striker to a place among the substitutes. Celtic threatened only in fits and starts, leaving Benfica to create the more clear-cut chances on the counter attack with Fraser Forster again proving his worth in goal for the home team.
The visit to face Spartak Moscow in Russia in a fortnight is now a fixture in which Celtic must at least attempt to earn another point before they go into the daunting double-header against Barcelona. Lennon’s burning desire for his team to make their presence felt in the tournament this season was personified in the adrenaline-fuelled start his players made to the match.
The reshuffled Benfica defence, without the experienced duo of Maxi Pereira and Luisao through suspension, were still trying to settle into the contest when Celtic carved out their first opening. Kris Commons, deployed in a floating role behind central striker Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor, latched onto a lay-off from the recent Venezuelan signing but saw his powerful shot charged down before it could test Benfica goalkeeper Artur. Lennon’s response to the absence of Georgios Samaras, so influential in Celtic’s qualifying round successes against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs, was to field Charlie Mulgrew in the wide left position. The early signs were promising from the versatile Mulgrew as he surged forward to force the first of a couple of early corner kicks, one of which flashed across the Benfica six-yard box without a home player able to get the vital touch required.
But that early encouragement for the home support soon began to dissipate, Benfica effectively slowing the pace of the contest down and taking the sting out of much of their hosts’ work. It led to a largely frustrating first half for Celtic who were unable to impose themselves in the attacking third of the pitch. Victor Wanyama, among those who had started most brightly in the home ranks, saw his approach compromised when he received the first caution of the evening after just 21 minutes for a late challenge on Enzo Perez.
Along with captain Scott Brown, the presence of Wanyama in central midfield was pivotal to Celtic’s hopes of limiting the influence Benfica’s techincally-gifted captain Pablo Aimar could have on proceedings. The 32-year-old playmaker, one of five Argentinian players in the Benfica starting line-up, was the most advanced of the visiting midfield as he looked to support lone striker Rodrigo. Much of the play from both sides, however, lacked fluency and conviction. Celtic broke out of the scrappy pattern briefly when Commons linked up smartly with Miku once again, but the striker’s final ball saw a decent move fizzle out inside the penalty area.
Benfica gave every impression of a team who would be content to leave Glasgow with a goalless draw, but they did threaten to plunder the lead in the 32nd minute when a long diagonal ball caught the Celtic defence on their heels. Rodrigo was left one-on-one with Fraser Forster but the big English goalkeeper reacted swiftly to rush out and block the shot.
Whenever they did secure possession in midfield, Benfica appeared keen to target Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre. The Honduran international was caught out on more than one occasion, eventually picking up a booking when he left himself with little option but to foul Eduardo Salvio in order to halt a dangerous situation for Celtic.
From the subsequent free-kick, the ball broke to Ezequiel Garay whose miscued shot well over the top of Forster’s goal simply summed up the mediocre standard of much of the play.
Celtic sought to heighten the tempo at the start of the second half with Commons continuing to look their most likely source of a breakthrough. His well delivered free-kick from the left, after Izaguirre had been crudely halted by Salvio, caused confusion in the Benfica defence. The ball was cleared as far as Adam Matthews whose shot was deflected behind for a corner.
But Lennon’s men still struggled to place their resilient opponents under any sustained pressure. There was a heart-stopping moment for the Celtic fans when Kelvin Wilson seemed to be far too casual in his approach to cutting out a Rodrigo thrust into the penalty area, but the big defender’s confidence was justified as he played his way out of trouble.
While only seen as an attacking force in flashes, Benfica brought some rare high quality to the contest when Aimar and Rodrigo linked up brilliantly to set up an opening for Nicolas Gaitan was deflected wide. Aimar curled the corner from the left into the near post where Garay’s crouching header forced a fine save from Forster. It was a reminder of the danger Benfica could pose and which was hardly lessened when they replaced the tiring Aimar with their leading striker Oscar Cardozo, whose place among the substitutes had been something of a surprise.
Celtic bolstered their own attacking options with the introduction of Hooper in the 66th minute. Izaguirre was the man to make way, Mulgrew dropping into the left-back role. Commons moved into the wide-left midfield position, leaving Hooper to partner Miku up front.
As Celtic’s search for a goal became more frantic, they had a loud but wildly optimistic appeal for a penalty turned down with nine minutes remaining when Forrest tumbled inside the area under a challenge from Melgarejo.
But it could have been worse for Celtic in the closing moments, Cardozo heading an Almeida cross narrowly over as Benfica sensed a chance to sneak away with all three points.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Lustig (Rogne 63), Wilson, Izaguirre (Hooper 66); Forrest, Brown, Wanyama, Mulgrew; Commons; Fedor. Subs: Zaluska, Ambrose, Lassad, Slane, Watt.
Benfica: Artur, Almeida, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo; Gaitan (Nolito 83), Matic, Aimar (Cardozo 63), Salvio, Perez; Rodrigo (Cesar 70). Subs: Lopes, Lima, Vitor, Gomes.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east