Euro opponents now see Celtic as scalp worth taking

Head Bhoy: Charlie Mulgrew battles with Barcelona's Marc Barta. Picture: Robert Perry
Head Bhoy: Charlie Mulgrew battles with Barcelona's Marc Barta. Picture: Robert Perry
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IT WAS the footballing equivalent of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes and it told us much about Celtic under Neil Lennon. Statistics have rarely been as stark in the history of the Champions League.

In two games with Barcelona, Celtic’s share of possession, according to official UEFA records, averaged 27 per cent, although Opta put it at less than that. Across both matches they had a combined nine attempts on goal compared to Barcelona’s 50, they had six on target compared to 27, they had three corners compared to 22 for the Spaniards. Barça hit the Celtic woodwork three times in the two games. At the Nou Camp, Tito Vilanova’s side made 883 successful passes to Celtic’s 182, they had a pass completion percentage of 89 per cent to Celtic’s 54 per cent. At Parkhead, Barça made 955 passes to Celtic’s 166. Xavi passed it 166 times. Kris Commons was the leading passer from the home team. He found a team-mate 22 times.

If you just looked at those numbers without knowing the aggregate score you might think that a slaughter had taken place but that’s the thing about statistics, you can look at them any which way. Luck was kind to Celtic, no question, but consider this. Despite conceding such an eye-watering amount of possession and being under the cosh for more than 180 minutes Celtic only picked up two yellow cards. They showed concentration and discipline on a vast scale. And they were clinical. The killer stat is goals scored, 3-3, and, given that Celtic scored their three goals from only six attempts on target, they must be right up there with the most ruthlessly efficient finishers in the competition. A 50 per cent strike rate? Had Barcelona matched that percentage they’d have scored 13 goals over the two matches.

In getting to a point where a draw against Benfica in Portugal this week might be enough to see Celtic through to the last 16, it’s impossible to pick one man out of the team and declare his contribution more significant than all others. In the case of Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama, you might be tempted. They’ve been the headline acts. Them and Tony Watt. But there’s a battalion of others who have done remarkable things and one of them, unquestionably, is Charlie Mulgrew.

“What I love about Charlie is that he is brave as a lion on the ball,” said Lennon on Friday. “In the hurly burly he will still look to get it down and play. That is a great asset to have. We judge players so so quickly. We do. Certainly the fans, and I am not so sure if you guys in the media do it but you jump onto the general consensus very quickly. In this country, people do judge him after two or three games, and say ‘Ach he’s crap, what have you bought him for?’ Sometimes you need patience. In my level of work you don’t always have it but you work your way around it with other players and just integrate them gradually and that is certainly the case with Charlie.”

When he arrived at Lennoxtown the other morning, he was as cool as could be for a man who was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes following his travels with Scotland during the week. Mulgrew is not one of life’s most excitable characters. He sits there and quietly talks things through. He reminds you that, for all the highs of Celtic Park a fortnight ago, the team have still got a massive job to do if they want to capitalise on that storied victory.

“We can’t just say because we beat Barcelona that we can take anyone on. It’s going to be tough against Benfica. There is also the added issue of other teams seeing us as a scalp because we beat Barcelona. Also, people will expect us just to beat Benfica, but it’s not as easy as that. There’s an expectation you must deal with at this club.”

“We’ll have to concentrate so much in Lisbon and it will be even more difficult. They know they need to win the game and we must be prepared. I think because Benfica have to win it will be our most difficult game in the group.

“They know their last game is away to Barcelona so it will be a tough ask for them to win that in the Nou Camp. They’re going to have to beat us so that makes it their biggest game and we have to prepared for that and rise to the challenge. They’ll throw everything at us with it being their last chance. We have to be up for it.”

The first game with Benfica in Glasgow? He struggles to remember much about it. It must seem like a lifetime ago given the exploits in Moscow and the dramatic series with Barca. “Not too much stands out from that game,” he says. “It was a tough game, they’ve got good players technically, and we had a couple of chances and maybe should have won the game, but they’re a good side.”

Good enough to be unbeaten in the Portuguese League after nine games – seven wins and two draws and a share of the leader’s spot with Porto.

In 13 matches, only two teams have kept Benfica goal-less this season – Barcelona and Celtic. They are not the force of last season, when aided by Javi Garcia (now at Manchester City) and Axel Witsel (a £30m transfer to Zenit) they dumped Manchester United out of the Champions League, but they remain a dangerous side. With four goals in his last three games, Oscar Cardozo, below left, the Paraguayan striker, surely won’t begin the game on the bench as he did at Parkhead, to everybody’s surprise.

“It was a great result against Barcelona,” said Mulgrew, “but we want to qualify and that’s our main aim. If we don’t do that then we’d be disappointed because we’re in such a strong position. Yes it was a good result, but that’s all it was.

“It was a tough shift for everyone and the work-rate and concentration levels from everyone were great. The Barcelona win gives us massive belief but different teams bring different challenges. Barcelona like to play everything in front of you and try to find wee gaps whereas other teams might put crosses into the box which is something else you need to deal with.”

For Mulgrew, things have changed dramatically from his first game for Celtic in 2010, a European tie in Braga that Celtic lost 3-0.

That team had Lukasz Zaluska in goal with Jos Hooiveld, Cha Du-Ri, Glenn Loovens and Efrain Juarez playing in the defence and Shaun Maloney and Ki Sung Yeung in the midfield. There are only four survivors from then to now. It’s been a great journey [since Braga] and the manager has built a good team and we’ve improved massively. I think we’re a lot more prepared for that type of challenge now. The manager was new and it was a new team trying to gel together but he’s been here for a couple of years now and you see that on the pitch. It takes time to settle at a club like Celtic and although I’d been at the club previously [as a youngster] it was all new faces We were all settling in. That was a disappointing night but we’ve moved on a lot since then We’ve got a lot more belief in ourselves.”

Braga and Utrecht and FC Sion seem like debacles from another age now. Much work has been done, but there’s still much left to do.