WHILE Celtic’s Champions League group stage campaign is now set to reach a feverish conclusion in Glasgow on 5 December, there is no reason for Neil Lennon and his players not to maintain cool heads and a sense of optimism over their prospects of making it to the last 16.
Composure, the very quality which Lennon bemoaned his side for crucially lacking in their 2-1 defeat to Benfica in Lisbon on Tuesday night, could now hold the key to completing Group G on the highest possible note for the Scottish champions.
For, although Celtic have slipped to third place in their section, any rational analysis of the situation would deliver the conclusion that they remain more likely than Benfica to finish runners-up to Barcelona and reach the knockout phase of Europe’s elite club competition.
The bookmakers certainly agree, making Celtic 8-15 to qualify, while Benfica are rated an 11-8 chance. It is an assessment reached, of course, by dint of Benfica having to travel to face Barcelona in their final fixture in a fortnight, while Celtic welcome bottom-of-the group Spartak Moscow to Parkhead.
Benfica are now in control of their own destiny, knowing that a win at the Nou Camp will take them through, regardless of what Celtic do. But it is a position of questionable strength that the Portuguese club find themselves in.
There has already been much chatter about the prospect of Barcelona, with the group already won, fielding a less than full-strength starting XI against Benfica. Even if their coach Tito Vilanova does shuffle his pack, it would be still be a surprise if he did not retain enough aces to seriously trouble the Benfica defence. The motivation for gifted youngsters, such as teenage prodigy Gerard Deulofeu, who made his Champions League debut in Barca’s 3-0 win at Spartak on Tuesday, could actually spell even greater danger for Jorge Jesus’ team.
The concept of a meaningless fixture at the Nou Camp is not one which Barcelona recognise. They are fiercely proud of their extraordinary record on their own patch, where they have lost only once (a 2-1 league defeat against Real Madrid last season) in the last three years.
If Celtic can justifiably expect Barcelona to avoid losing to Benfica, their own part of the required equation for qualification should certainly not be beyond them. Needing to better Benfica’s result on the night, Lennon’s players already know they have the beating of Spartak after their 3-2 win in Moscow on matchday two. With even third place in the group and Europa League qualification now beyond them, there is scant motivation for the Russian side when they come to Glasgow. Even though a team playing without pressure can carry its own threat on such occasions, it is already clear Spartak will be something less than fully focused on the task in hand come 5 December.
Their Spanish coach Unai Emery has already admitted that, following their elimination this week, his priority is now the remainder of the Russian Premier League season. Spartak are currently fifth in their domestic table, ten points adrift of leaders CSKA Moscow, and face an uphill battle to earn Champions League qualification again for next season.
So it seems entirely possible that Emery will choose to leave some of his leading players out of the match at Celtic Park. Either side of it, Spartak have two crucial league games against the teams directly above them in the table, at home to Zenit St Petersburg on 29 November and then away to Rubin Kazan on 9 December. In the context of Spartak’s season – and Emery’s hopes of retaining his job – those two matches are now significantly more important than their assignment in Scotland.
Celtic’s own domestic schedule sees them in Scottish Cup action at home to Arbroath on 1 December, immediately before they play Spartak. While Lennon will pay all due respect to the Red Lichties, it is clearly a fixture which will provide him with the opportunity to place some of his players in cotton wool ahead of Champions League D-Day.
He already knows he will be without the suspended Victor Wanyama against Spartak, while club captain Scott Brown is poised for surgery on his chronic hip problem which will sideline him for up to ten weeks.
Even without two such influential midfield players, however, Lennon should have the kind of resources at his disposal to command that crucial area of the pitch against Spartak. It could be a big night for Beram Kayal, now building his way towards full match fitness after his injury problems. The undoubtedly talented Israeli international has struggled to live up to the highly impressive initial impact he made at Celtic two seasons ago and there could be no better time for him to reassert himself as a dominant midfield force for Lennon’s team.
With Joe Ledley, Kris Commons and perhaps James Forrest also available, Celtic should be able to compensate for the absences of Wanyama and Brown.
Lennon’s greatest wish on 5 December will be to see Celtic produce a far higher standard of ball retention than they managed in their defeat to Benfica. The official Uefa statistics showed Celtic managed a pass completion rate of just 43 per cent on Tuesday, their poorest mark on that front in the competition so far.
When they defeated Spartak in Moscow, their pass completion rate was 63 per cent. If they can be that accurate and consistent in possession on 5 December, then they should have the tools to complete a win double against their Russian opponents.
Celtic have already exceeded their fourth-seed status in Group G and, if they are forced to settle for the consolation of a place in the last 32 of the Europa League, it would still represent a reasonable level of achievement for Lennon.
But he will undoubtedly find it as anti-climactic as any Celtic supporter if, after a campaign which saw Barcelona defeated at Parkhead, the Scottish champions now miss out on further Champions League progress. If his team can hold their nerve, there remains every likelihood Celtic will be in the Champions League draw on 20 December in Nyon, rather than the one for the Europa League.