IT IS no push to find parallels between Benfica and their Celtic Park hosts for Wednesday’s Champions League opener. Each were European Cup winners and continental aristocrats in the 1960s and 1970s.
Each have periodically dominated in domestic leagues marginalised by neighbouring set-ups that have become footballing El Dorados. And with almost the same number of Champions League outings, recently the pair have dined at the top table, at least for the starter.
Yet, Benfica and Celtic are as much distant relations as kindred spirits. In certain ways the Scottish champions would like to be just like the Lisbon club. How they would wish they could rake in £40 million from two player sales, as the Stadium of Light side did in cashing in on Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel, who moved to Manchester City and Zenit. How Celtic would balk at debts of £300m that have placed an imperative on such asset management.
Celtic would not be uneasy abut filling their first-team full of non-nationals, as Benfica do now. The majority of their side hails from South America. They would less comfortable with the player ownership model used by the Lisbon club. Benfica summer signing Ola John is 80 per cent owned by Doyen Sports, a Maltese-based agency. His team-mate Jardel is effectively the property of Brazilian investment fund Traffic. These are just a few examples of Portuguese football clubs’ widespread exploitation of FIFA and UEFA’s woolly regulations on third-party ownership. These deals would not be possible under Scottish, and indeed, English, football associations statutes.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon would not push the similarities between his club and their midweek opponents. “I think Portuguese football is quite healthy at the top end of the table,” he said. “They do OK in terms of the TV. I would say we would be pretty far behind them in that respect. Yet they must have problems if they are having to sell players for £30m to £40m.
“Can they service their £300m debt? We couldn’t. I think in terms of finance we are different but in terms of footballing history and tradition, there are a lot of similarities there. I think there’s a good relationship between both the clubs. I do remember going over to the Stadium of Light and our fans unfurling a banner in memory of the Hungarian player who passed away [Miklos Feher]. I think that went down very well with the Benfica fans.”
What goes down well with those who enjoy swashbuckling football is the unswerving commitment of Benfica coach Jorge Jesus to a rapier attacking style. It propelled the Lisbon club to the last eight of the Champions League last year, where they were unlucky to lose to eventual winners Chelsea. That run demonstrates Benfica have better players than Celtic. Striker Oscar Cardoza remains a prodigious goal source. “He is an excellent player, a real handful. I think he was the subject of a couple of big offers so they did well to hold on to him,” Lennon said. The Paraguayan topped the Portuguese scoring list in netting 22 times last year and is well known to Celtic having scored the winner when the clubs met in Lisbon five years ago in a Champions League group match. Despite that reverse, Celtic progressed to the last 16 at Benfica’s expense, as they also did the previous season. Central to that was Celtic’s impressive home record and Benfica’s poor away form. The Lisbon club have posted only four wins in 26 attempts. Celtic have lost only two of 20 home Champions League games: both to Barcelona, whom they will be pitted against once more.
Lennon recalls the fact that the Benfica he knew weren’t great travellers. Seasoned watchers of the club fear that will again prove their weakness because of Jesus’s almost manic devotion to all-out attack. His team shapes into a 2-3-5 when moving forward and, unsurprisingly, Benfica do not boast a watertight defence. This will be furthered weakened after captain and centre-back Luisao was handed a two-month domestic ban of Friday for decking a referee during a pre-season friendly in Germany. The seriousness of the Brazilian’s transgression is expected to see him handed a UEFA suspension to match.
“He has been their one constant,” the Celtic manager said. “When I played them they were 4-3-3 with really clever midfield players and the full-backs got forward at will. I think that mentality hasn’t changed that much between now and then, there will be a bit of freshness with players coming in. They seem to be in a transitional period with selling some of their best players and bringing Lima in [for £3m from Braga]. “They push their full-backs up really high but we feel we can counteract that and I think they are vulnerable on the counter-attack at times with the full-backs playing so high. That’s something we’ll need to look at.”