Celtic drew 0-0 with Benfica after a cagey match rooted firmly in a midfield battle. With both sides depleted, neither could create clear-cut chances, with a goal always more likely to be derived from a defensive mistake or a stroke of fortune. Neither situation arose, leading to a fair goalless finish.
Georgios Samaras and Beram Kayal trained at the start of the week, but were not deemed fit enough to make the match squad. They joined a burgeoning list of absentees including Joe Ledley, Dylan McGeouch, Anthony Stokes and Paddy McCourt. Finally Gary Hooper dropped to the bench suffering from a knock endured during the defeat to St Johnstone.
Neil Lennon therefore had limited options, with Mikael Lustig surprisingly starting at centre-back, Thomas Rogne languishing on the bench and Charlie Mulgrew (as suggested in the tictactic preview) starting on the left of midfield. This allowed Kris Commons to be used behind Miku as the bridge between midfield and attack, and James Forrest in his preferred position on the right.
Benfica had selection concerns of their own, with big players Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel recently departed, and key defenders Luisao and Maxi Pereira suspended. Youngsters Jardel and Andre Almeida came in at the back, with Nemanja Matic once again in Garcia’s deep-lying role and Perez (normally considered a left-midfielder) in Witsel’s.
Oscar Cardozo surprisingly only made the bench, with Gaitan and Pablo Aimar also entering the side. Benfica’s one advantage perhaps was their schedule, having a match-free weekend. They also enjoyed the luxury of a friendly against Real Betis last week to test the post-Witsel/Garcia team.
The formation was a slightly negative adjustment to the ambitious 4-2-4 shape in that previous 3-0 league win over Nacional, with the wingers stationed deeper and Aimar acting (expectedly) in a No. 10 role, as opposed to Rodrigo’s high up 2nd striker type preference.
With both sides taking a midfield heavy, cautious approach given recent defensive foibles, Benfica’s quick and incisive short passing contrasted with the rise of Victor Wanyama and Scott Brown as ruthless enforcers. The force was needed simply to cope, but equally Celtic were doing a better job at keeping possession once it had turned over compared to previous SPL matches. The effect was for a uniform, unpenetrating chain of failed attacks and turnovers.
The difference though was in the intensity of the attacks. Benfica clearly had that extra quality on the ball – with Gaitan and Aimar in particular showing off terrific control and technique. Yet barring one main chance, with Rodrigo just short of going one-on-one with Frazer Forster, Benfica were kept largely quiet – testament to the energetic defending from Celtic. The referee’s book was the resulting worry, with Wanyama picking up an early yellow and Izaguirre pushing his luck.
Individually even the unfamiliar pairing of Lustig and Kelvin Wilson were excelling, who may have been expected to struggle at this level. The standout poor performers were Izaguirre and Forrest. Both so heavily depended on in previous seasons for direct pace and width; both unable to beat a man, compose passes, or even track back that well.
Forrest’s frustration can be explained in part by Benfica’s shape. Matic dropped between the centre-backs to make an ad-hoc back three/five in two circumstances: in possession, and where a centre-back pushes wide to cover a full-back. This support meant that Forrest could rarely isolate Melgarejo one-on-one, and psyched up for the occaision, probably made the wrong decision in even trying to knock the ball past.
The nullifcation of Forrest highlighted Celtic’s weakness in depth – with effectively no (fit) alternative available to play on the right.
Celtic’s most likely route to goal was via set-pieces, either corner-kicks or deep free-kicks planted on top of the uncertain goalkeeper Artur. But the quality of the delivery, timing of runs in the box and good old luck was lacking. On a separate note, the situation was a hint in the direction of Scotland’s traditional (for want of a better word) “anti” football. That is – a physical, defensive and abrasive style for 90 minutes topped off with a goal from a set-piece. To Celtic’s credit, this wasn’t overtly the plan, just the most likely route to goal.
The outstanding problem remained trying to involve the attacking players. Commons and Miku couldn’t get into shooting positions, and Forrest couldn’t get in behind. Also, Mulgrew couldn’t get high enough up the park, and if he did found it impossible to use his exceptional left-foot.
Benfica while being more comfortable darting forward, couldn’t negotiatie safely past the irrepressible Wanyama and Brown. Lennon’s first shake of the dice saw Mulgrew moved back to left-back, Hooper brought on beside Miku and Commons moved to the left, but the flow of the match stayed the same. Both sides were content with a draw – a loss for Celtic would be disastrous and a point for Benfica seen to be a point gained.
Lennon will be pleased with gaining respect from the footballing world, but certain individual performances are a worry. Izaguirre’s unreliability, Forrest’s ineffectiveness, and Miku’s second quiet performance (albeit in a truly unforgiavable lone role). The defensive progress is welcome, but that match-winning individual, a jewel in the crown, is lacking.