First point accepted gratefully as Celtic return to Champions League
THE Bhoys are back in town. Celtic borrowed this old punk manifesto and used it as the theme of the evening, though it was not quite the return they wanted. Benfica employed all their wiles to help squeeze the life out of this opening Group G match.
Celtic cannot be too disheartened. The fans, after all, have had more experience of these kinds of nights than the players, most of whom were feeling their way through a major step in their careers.
This is the toughest of testing grounds and though the Celtic fans offered stiff support, as ever, they were also notably quick to grumble when one of the several Champions League novices on show misplaced a pass or let their standards slip in some other way.
There was a desperation present in the air which was transmitted down on to the pitch and proved unhelpful in the opening half, with Benfica able to ride the initial storm and then start imposing themselves. Surprisingly, danger man Oscar Cardozo was only a substitute, but in Pablo Aimar the visitors have an always watchable playmaker.
Cardozo, when he did appear in the second-half, very nearly left his mark on the match, but a late header drifted just over.
Only one player in Celtic’s starting line-up, skipper Scott Brown, had sampled Champions League football before. It meant that ten others came of age last night.
This is the stage that remains Celtic’s most persuasive argument when seeking to convince players to sign.
This is their Narnia, their wonderland.
Those such as Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews were sampling the top club competition in Europe for the first time. Would they be able to perform? It was a question which meant there was a degree of trepidation present as the Celtic fans rolled up in impressive numbers.
Any faint-heartedness was, however, masked by the typically rousing pre-match singalongs in the run-up to the tune they have ached to hear here for four long years. When the first notes of Zadok the Priest sounded, it felt like a benediction to those present.
But it was still greeted with quite as much emotion as the traditional airing of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which, on this occasion, carried an additional punch due to the recent revelations following the publication of an independent panel’s inquiry into Hillsborough.
The Liverpool club badge was flashed up on the two big screens and the Celtic supporters did the rest. Soon, however, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the players.
They were expected to remain clear-headed in such frenzied circumstances, even if the game-plan clearly relied on them channelling the fervour of the fans in what was an up-tempo start by Neil Lennon’s side.
No-one seemed more energised than Brown, whose exile from this competition has been a source of personal frustration. He set about harassing his midfield opponents from the first minute.
Victor Wanyama, too, looked to have been seized by a realisation that this was, in the absence of Old Firm matches, one of only a few times when the atmosphere at Parkhead will truly crackle. It was also the place where someone with his career ambitions must hope to shine.
The Celtic fans were intent on making the most of the occasion. Apart from a banner which celebrated the fact there are “no zombies in Europe”, there were few references to the predicament of their old rivals from across the city.
Perhaps it was just too obvious. No-one needed to be reminded about just how different their worlds have become in a week when Rangers have already been eliminated from the Ramsdens Cup after a home defeat by Queen of the South.
The Celtic fans yearned for the victory that would further expose the gulf. The willingness was clearly present in the home players, but was there the guile and the talent? Benfica created the one real opportunity of the opening half, and even that was a half-chance which Rodrigo could not divert past the on-rushing Fraser Forster. The goalkeeper’s challenge drew some penalty appeals from Benfica.
Celtic, though, survived, and endeavoured to make the breakthrough in the second half. Their hopes of qualifying hinge on these home engagements, with Barcelona and Sparkak Moscow still to arrive in Glasgow’s east end.
As with Scotland’s World Cup qualifying adventures, they could ill-afford to allow points to slip from their grasp on home turf, although the Portuguese visitors looked fairly comfortable with the prospect of a 0-0 draw.
When Nemanja Matic left the ball for his own goalkeeper to run a long way to fetch we had not even reached the hour mark. The Parkhead crowd delivered their unimpressed judgement at such antics, but it seemed perfectly clear that Benfica were intent on frustrating the opposition. They were certainly not here to beguile the home supporters.
The fans almost had the last laugh when Matic then almost diverted a Kris Commons cross past Artur, but the ’keeper was able to get down quickly to the ball.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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