MIKAEL Lustig believes Celtic can take advantage of Benfica’s desperation for victory in Lisbon tomorrow night as the race for qualification from Group G of the Champions League reaches a critical stage.
The Scottish champions fly out from Glasgow this morning to the Portuguese capital, seeking to build on their remarkable 2-1 victory over Barcelona at Celtic Park two weeks ago which left them tantalisingly close to reaching the last 16 of European football’s elite tournament for the first time in five years.
Neil Lennon’s side sit in second place in their group after four rounds of fixtures, just two points behind leaders Barcelona and three points ahead of Benfica. Victory at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon for Celtic would ensure qualification for the knockout stage, while a draw would leave them as favourites to progress ahead of their final Group G match at home to Spartak Moscow on 5 December.
For Benfica, whose final match is away to Barcelona, a win tomorrow appears essential to their hopes of progress. It would elevate them above Celtic on the head-to-head rule after the goalless draw between the sides in Glasgow on matchday one.
Swedish defender Lustig, who has emerged as a key performer in Celtic’s eye-catching group stage campaign so far, feels the additional strain on Benfica to justify their second-seed status could work in favour of the SPL leaders.
“The pressure is absolutely on Benfica,” said Lustig. “They must take three points. They are under massive pressure on Tuesday night. It is important for us to back up that victory over Barcelona. We want to go through to the next stage of the Champions League.
“But Benfica away from home is probably the second toughest fixture in the group, after going to Barcelona, so it’s going to be really tough. Hopefully we can go there, play our football and get at least a point.
“We can go there knowing we would be happy with one point, instead of needing to get three. Of course, we always play for a win. But, if the game is level with five or 10 minutes left, then we are maybe going to be more defensive than we would be otherwise.
“Benfica are especially dangerous at home. I think they are a little bit more defensive away from home. In the first game in the group against us at Celtic Park, it seemed as if they were happy with 0-0. So I think they will play really attacking football on Tuesday.”
Celtic already have a significant sense of achievement about their Champions League efforts this season, having earned the club’s first ever away win in the group stage when they defeated Spartak Moscow 3-2 in Russia and then recording the epic victory over tournament favourites Barcelona.
But the varied permutations surrounding the remaining Group G fixtures still carry the prospect of Celtic having to settle for third place and Europa League qualification, or even finishing bottom of the pile and being eliminated completely. Lustig admits he and his team-mates would find it hard to deal with failure now after scaling such heights already in the campaign.
“It would be a major disappointment now, having beaten Barcelona, if we didn’t make it to the last 16,” added the 25-year-old. “But there are still six points available for every team and Benfica and Spartak Moscow are both strong opponents. It will be really tough, but we do feel like we are quite close to qualifying now.”
The impact of Celtic’s win over Barcelona was underlined for Lustig last week when he returned to Sweden on international duty, playing in his country’s 4-2 win over England. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose stunning overhead kick sealed his four-goal display in Stockholm, took time out to acknowledge Celtic’s feat.
“Zlatan, who played for Barca, congratulated me when we met up last week,” said Lustig. “I don’t know if he was happy Barca had lost, but he said ‘well done’ anyway! It was massive news back in Sweden. I think the whole of football think Barcelona are the best team in the world. So it made a massive impression in Sweden that Celtic beat them.”
Celtic enjoyed the ideal preparation for their trip to Portugal by reclaiming top spot in the SPL on Saturday with their 2-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie, a significant result after they had dropped seven points in their previous three league games.
“The Champions League has maybe had a bearing on our domestic form this season, but we do try to focus on the SPL,” said Lustig. “It’s not as if we are going into the games with lots of players being rested. We want to win every domestic game, it’s just that we didn’t play that well in the three league matches before Saturday.
“It was a really tough and important game at Aberdeen. I think we showed why we are champions. It was a really strong performance. After dropping points in our previous three league games, we needed to get back to winning ways.”
Lustig’s fellow defender, Efe Ambrose, meanwhile, accepts that Celtic face a tough challenge tomorrow night but is determined to follow up the historic win over Barcelona with another good result.
“We know the Benfica game is going to be another difficult game for us,” he said. “We are going to work hard to maintain the same levels we have been used to in the Champions League.
“We are not going there to lose. They are a good team and they have great fans and a good atmosphere, but they know that Celtic are not just there to be run over. We have beaten Barcelona and Spartak Moscow, so it will be a different atmosphere.
“If they lose the game, they are out so we know they’re going to give it their all, but we are going to make sure we do the same and not be overawed by the surroundings or the fans.”