Celtic Champions League preview: Rodrigo the danger for Benfica

UNTIL now Celtic have lost only two of their 20 Champions League games at home, and Benfica have won only four of their 26 away fixtures. The Portuguese side have lost on both their previous Champions League trips to Celtic Park, conceding four goals and scoring none.

Those statistics will warm the hearts of the Celtic punters in the build-up to the midweek group opener, but the emergence of Rodrigo from the Parkhead tunnel on Wednesday should strike fear into them. That’s according to one of their own – Owen Coyle, Bolton manager and Celtic supporter. He signed the emerging talent on a year-long loan from the Lisbon club in 2010 and could see that the Brazilian-born Spanish under-23 international was destined for the top.

When Coyle launched a £4 million bid to entice Rodrigo to Bolton on a permanent basis last summer, it was already too late. Arsenal and Inter Milan had also been alerted by a shining performance in that summer’s under-20 World Cup but even they couldn’t lure the former Real Madrid starlet away from the Eagles.

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“We were trying to get him back for the Premiership last year but we had no chance because the Benfica coach, like the rest of us, had seen something special in him and put him in his 25-man squad for the Champions League, knowing he was going to play his part, and he did. He had an impact on the Champions League last year with his performances and he weighed in with a couple of goals, one of which was a spectacular volley.”

The Portuguese club have now tied him up on a contract until 2019 with a ¤45m buy-out clause. Coyle is not surprised.

“We look extensively at Spanish football because I love the play of the young Spanish players and, even going back to my time at St Johnstone, we referenced Spanish football and had players we liked but so much is dictated by finances and we couldn’t get them. But, when Bolton were in the Premier League, it was finally within our scope to look at bringing some of that young talent over and Rodrigo was one I had watched extensively. He was so pleasing on the eye, he had that pace, that balance and he worked hard. He ticked every box you could have in terms of young aspiring players and more. To be honest, if there were even more boxes to add on, I’m sure he would tick them too! There is still so much scope for improvement because he is hungry and he wants to learn and develop and what I love most about him is that he is driven to be the best he can be in football and anything else that comes his way is incidental. He will earn huge rewards but they will be well-earned.”

Predominantly left-footed, he can easily go with his right as well and is a very good finisher, as three goals in the first three games of the domestic league will testify. Coyle adds: “He is able to play anywhere across the front line. He can play as the central striker, he can play as a wide player, or as a withdrawn striker and he is a very, very clever footballer.”

Rodrigo got a taste of Glasgow last month when he played in the Olympics for Spain in their surprise defeat by Japan at Hampden Park but has wide experience of the British style of football from his season at Bolton.

During his time in England, he made 17 appearances for Coyle’s side, four of which were starts. “When we had him he was a baby in football terms and we used him more for impact off the bench. I remember the game against Wigan, he scored a wonderful goal and was outstanding,” recalls Coyle.

“You know that, while he is very talented individually, he will play for the team. Bolton Wanderers have had some terrific footballers but every one of them knew that Rodrigo was a special talent. They saw him every day and they knew how focused he was, how hard he worked for them in training and in games, they knew how professional his attitude was. Every day he was a credit to himself and his family and he is absolutely set for a glittering career in football.”

Coyle says the input of Rodrigo’s father, a former professional player himself, is an asset, while his family keep their boy focused on what really matters. “What’s nice is that he just really loves football. You have to remember how young he was when he was with us and it would have been very easy for him to think ‘I’ve just moved from Real Madrid to Benfica, I will stay here and just settle in’ but, no, he wanted to try another culture, another league and another style of football, even if it meant coming to another country, and that shows he wants to learn and that will stand him in good stead.”

Coyle doesn’t believe that Rodrigo is the only threat to Celtic’s impressive home record this week but he will be a significant cause of irritation and is a potential matchwinner. One worrying factor for the SPL title holders is that the atmosphere which can help swing games in their favour, is likely to simply inspire the Benfica youngster.

Coyle adds: “For anybody who loves football, it doesn’t get any better than big European nights.

“You want to play against the best teams, in the best stadia, which Celtic Park is [one of], and Celtic fans are renowned for creating a wonderful atmosphere.

“That will push Celtic on but Rodrigo will also warm to that and he will thrive in that environment.

“He will expect a tough game and I don’t think anyone in the Champions League would relish a trip to Glasgow to play Celtic but the thing about Rodrigo is that he will love the challenge. He just wants to get better and he will, because he has the talent and the attitude to do that.”