Two familiar foes go head-to-head on Wednesday night with serious contrasting problems to contend with and no clear indication in the Betfair Champions League betting tips on who will be the likely winner.
Celtic’s big issue has been form with the worst start to an SPL campaign in over a decade, latterly taking 1 point from a possible 6 following the weekend’s defeat to St Johnstone. Benfica’s headache meanwhile is in replacing three defensive giants: Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel have made big-money moves to Manchester City and Zenit St Petersburg respectively, while central defender Luisao has been suspended after pushing a referee in a recent friendly.
Aside from Luisao’s supension (which strategically should be a simple swap), the main question will be how to cope with losing two such exceptional defensive midfielders. Garcia’s role was particularly important as the deepest midfielder of the central two (and a half). Reminiscent of Ki Sung-Yeung’s best regista moments for Celtic, Garcia would drop between his two centre-backs, picking up the ball and taking responsibility for either starting moves or hoarding possession in a calm and sensible manner.
In his most recent Primeira Liga fixture against Nacional, manager Jorge Jesus initially used Axel Witsel in that sitting role, with the attack-minded Carlos Martins charging ahead. The balance wasn’t right especially considering Rodrigo (in roughly the No. 10 area) not especially concerned with helping out in midfield.
At half-time with the score-line level, former Chelsea youth Nemanja Matić replaced the over-extending Martins, which allowed Witsel to take up his preferred dynamic ball-winning role. Matic became regista, and Benfica’s performance and ball retention improved notably.
Who then to replace Witsel, especially if not Martins? Last week in a friendly with Spaniards Real Betis, Jesus had a chance to survey his options. Benfica B product Andre Almeida was Witsel’s direct equivalent in the featured diagram (top), with attacking options like Pablo Aimar and Gaitan (yet to feature this season) given a chance to impress.
The strength on paper therefore lies in Benfica’s attack. Oscar Cardozo and Lima (signed this summer from Braga) finished as 1st and 2nd top scorers in Portugal’s top tier last season. These forwards are complemented by the tricky and direct duo of Rodrigo and Salvio – the latter having already experienced Celtic Park with Atletico Madrid last season.
Aside from the wealth of attacking talent, Neil Lennon has to be most wary of something he encourages in his own side – hugely attacking full-backs who cover a lot of ground. Against Nacional, left and right-back South Americans Lorenzo Melgarejo and Maxi Pereira combined in the final third(!) to open the scoring. Melgarejo on the counter, skipping past players in Emilio Izaguirre fashion flicked the ball to Pereira in Nacional’s box. His cross was met by the head of the deadly Cardozo, opening the scoring.
The warning is emphasized considering Celtic’s weekend travails – James Forrest and Kris Commons inability to track back, and a broad flimsyness in the challenge all over the park.
One of Lennon’s biggest weaknesses as a manager so far has been the lack of a distinct, first-choice formation ready for the biggest stage. Previous successful European managers had their clear-cut plans (the Martin O’Neill 3-5-2 and then 4-4-2, Gordon Strachan’s 4-4-2 and infrequent 4-1-4-1) but Lennon seems awkwardly discontent with his own 4-4-2.
Over the course of the past two seasons in Europe Lennon has attempted 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-3-1, and perhaps most comfortably the above merging of 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1. Using Commons in the centre helps address his defensive frailty, while maintaining a level of support for Gary Hooper – the reluctant lone striker.
Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor and to a lesser extent Lassad Nouioui and Tony Watt have spiced up the possibilities, but for now it seems unlikely that Hooper will be shunned, particularly given Miku’s quiet debut at the weekend. The dilemma is that Miku is more adept in lone role, and has recent top experience – for Getafe against Real Madrid, and for Venezuela against Peru.
In availability terms key injuries forces Lennon’s hand in terms of selecting defence and midfield. Georgios Samaras, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and Paddy McCourt are all out. Thomas Rogne’s status as perhaps the strongest centre-back strengthens the case for using Charlie Mulgrew elsewhere – possibly at left-back (given Izaguirre’s recent tepid form) or possibly on the left of midfield, a defensively sound alternative to Commons. Surprisingly Efe Ambrose makes the squad, though the jump from the Israeli First Division should rule out a start.
Another defensive tweak utilised by Lennon, has been using Adam Matthews on the right wing. This might see James Forrest either on the left or behind the striker, with Mikael Lustig at right-back.
What is clear, aside from shoring up the defence and even superseding tactics in terms of importance, is a change in attitude. Lennon cited that his lazy side may have had one eye on the Champions League: here is the opportunity to rectify that indiscretion.
**late edit. Sharp-sighted followers @andymcd90 and @Gaffney67 point out that Maxi Pereira is also suspended for Benfica. A big blow considering the quality of the attacking right-back.