Celtic 0 – 0 Benfica: Sturdy Celtic can’t bring forwards into play

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.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-1-1

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 Lineup

Benfica 4-2-3-1

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.

Blustery first-half

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.

Second half

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.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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13 Responses to Celtic 0 – 0 Benfica: Sturdy Celtic can’t bring forwards into play

  1. Kev says:

    shame about the injuries, but i’d have liked to see a couple things from lennon:
    -forrest up against the right center back who he could maybe beat for pace (also relinquishing him of defensive responsibilities)
    -brown pushed to the right a bit to deal with the full back
    -another central midfielder perhaps mulgrew at the left of the three with wanyama holding (would help get him time on the ball, and allow brown forward more)
    -izzy out I dont care who replaces him, but he is a shadow of his former self
    -maybe try out lassad instead of miku

    • tictacticuk says:

      The first two points quite interesting, think the problem was as much that Brown would have too much to do, too much ground to cover. I also think Lassad might’ve been worth a try late on (or Watt) but Miku done OK to be fair. Also agree about Izzy. Such a shame right now.

  2. tom says:

    Still think our coaches approach is to reactionary as is our subsequent play.
    Our lack of movement off the ball always makes our opponents look silkier.
    Until our coach develops into a proactive type i cant see us developing.
    Always feel we are set up more to not concede and capitalise on an opponents mistake or set piece rather than creating chances for ourselves.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I’ve considered this under Lennon to be a fitness thing. Compared to the fitness of (for example) Strachan’s side, I think there’s been a big difference. On the last point, I’d say that’s a tad unfair. Lennon does setup varying levels of attacking shapes depending on the opposition, but like last night our attackers just weren’t as technically adept as Benfica’s, and so our best chances happened to be good old corners….

  3. Weeron says:

    I watch our games on tv in Canada. Last night, I was lucky enough to be in the Jock Stein stand. Biggest weakness was the inability to complete a pass from the defense into central midfield. This meant that there was no possession developing within 20 yards of Miku. We didn’t have the players on the park last night who are capable of receiving, and making use of, such a pass.

    As a result, everything went wide, then square, then long.

    I miss Lubo…….

    • tictacticuk says:

      Great that you could get over! I agree with you, and personally thought it showed up some of Commons limitations as a link player. He can be a brutal force in the SPL but compared to the No. 10s of CL sides……

  4. Stephen says:

    I thought it was a really decent professional performance though for a neutral I’m sure it was a ‘lacklustre’ game. The search continues for a creative midfielder… We really really missed Samaras. For us and Greece he is such a key player. It is worrying just how much we rely on him.

    Unfortunately the return of Kayal, Stokes, Ledley, McGeouch will not address this.

    Last night the team really picked itself. The only changes might have been to swap Izzy and Mulgrew when he got a card. I might have brought on Watt for Forrest in the second half too – but everything else was a no-brainer.

    There are no mugs in this group – not even us. I think it will be nip and tuck for 2nd to 4th perhaps decided by the odd lucky break.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Think it shows why Lennon was in the market for a winger during the summer (or another No. 10) – shame nothing happened. Absolutey spot on with missing Samaras though. Oh what a turnaround from just a year ago! Also agree on last point, every point counts and I’m afraid I’d look at Benfica at home and be expecting better than 0 goals scored 😦

  5. The Raga says:

    Thanks again for the analysis. I think that if we are going to utilise Mulgrew in nidfield or at centre-half, we desperately need someone else as a replacement left-back. Also if Ledley (or indeed Kayal) had been fit (Ifs and buts i suppose) we could have moved Brown onto the right and put joe into the middle. I think Forrest should have come off. He seems to be suffering from a bit of a dip in form and I think it would be good for him. Matthews has looked good out there when given a chance.

  6. NiallMacCana says:

    Pleased with how dealt with benfica but feel we desperately needed those 3 points. Wanyama and Brown were immense but too often we can’t progress outve our own half. The ball seems to go from centre back, to full back, to winger, to centre midfielder then back to a centre back far too often. Think we miss ki or even kayal for that bitve extra quality on the ball. Forrest was very poor and wouldve liked lassad to replace him. Almost sure I read he could play RM and he may have profited from the delivery of Commons and Mulgrew

  7. LeBron+Wade says:

    Really interesting analysis once again TTT.

    For what it’s worth a few of my feelings are: Brown was immense, he has grown as a player and it frustrates me to hear/read (not here) other Celtic supporters lazily referring to some exaggerated deficincies in his game to bring him down and list players who are far less integral as ahead of them in the pecking order. I this instance the manager’s favouritism is well-spent.

    In the case of Forrest maybe Lennon’s attachment is mis-spent at times. I liek James and think he has McGeady-esque potential, however he seems to me to be really inconsistent at the moment. Unfortunately as you rightly pointed out we had no alternatives to him on Wednesday. Other than Sami he is the only person who plays the wide roles with the kind of pace which can hurt teams.

    The Izaguirre situation was difficult to watch unfold on Wednesday and I’ll try and sum up what I saw: basically (as you’ve touched on) the ball was worked across our defence from right to left to Izaguirre who was either able to move the play on or tied himself in knots and was caught out. Part of the problem as I seen it was the reluctance of anyone to take responsibility on the right hand side to advance us properly. At this level there will invariably be a man on you so it’s imperative that you either move to free yourself (I’m thinking of you James Forrest) or are brave enough to take the ball in under pressure and do something positive (in our case see Nakamura/Petrov). The way I perceived it we were a little cautious until it got to Izzy and he was therefore the player who spent time dawdling and trying to open something up, albeit from very deep and certainly with limited options. I thought he did okay up until he got booked then lost his compsure completely for the five minutes until half-time then came out more cautious and effective in the second half before being subbed. At half-time I thought it may have been sensible to swap him and Mulgrew to try and protect him.

    Insofar as Izzy’s defending, oddly I thought there was a lack of communication between himself and those around him leading to some elementary lapses in picking up. Perhaps it’s because I thought he was a truly exceptional find in his first season and he is admittedly a favourite of mine but I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and have faith that he will come good. I fear that his performances at the minute are being judged by the Samaras criteria of early last season where there is doubt in the stands from kick-off which is pre-empting and highlighting teh negatives in his perfromance.

    I’ll keep it brief on other subjects: Miku I thought looked decent, worked hard and brought others into play, showed decent touch. He was able to advance us territorialy numerous times. For him to be effective in this formation he needs Commons and Forrest to get up and into dangerous positions.

    Commons performed a shift and his movement and willingness to try and make things happen was in stark contrast to Forrest, alas his lack of pace is really evident at this level. Matthews was outstanding defensively in my opinion – composed, assured, aware. Wilson is realy starting to change my opinion.

    Seems obvious to say, but Ki woudl be a vital component in the CL.

    Last word goes on our Captain, Scott Brown, truly worthy of his status and in my opinion, one of the best individual performances by a Celtic player in the Champions League.

  8. Miku is not really a lone striker. It’s not a role that he has played. With Getafe he tended to be used in a pairing sometimes as the second striker.

    He scored goals with a mid-table side in la liga. Given time to adapt to the SPL, he will score goals.

  9. Abraham says:

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