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Celtic draw little comfort despite holding their own

Thursday, 20 September 2012 - 12:02pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
A better return for Benfica than Celtic was the outcome of a fixture which, for all the allure of the Champions League group stage, was largely patchy and forgettable.

A better return for Benfica than Celtic was the outcome of a fixture which, for all the allure of the Champions League group stage, was largely patchy and forgettable. It certainly lacked the drama played out elsewhere in the group, where Barcalona came from behind in the Nou Camp to beat Spartak Moscow 3-2 and go top of the section, a position which they will very likely maintain until the end.

If there was a palpable element of frustration amongst the Hoops support as the game wore on without much nourishment for their hopes, it should be remembered that the visit of Benfica was, for Neil Lennon's players, an introduction to life at this level, four years after Celtic last appeared in the group stage.

Nevertheless, the lack of bite displayed in a home game suggests that this campaign could be a grind for the Scottish champions, who did not even muster a handful of shots on target.

The first challenge for Lennon was to cope with the absence of four key players in Georgios Samaras, Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal and Anthony Stokes. Samaras, in particular, has been favoured as the outlet forward in European ties and both he and Stokes provide a physical presence that was absent from last night's line-up. Lennon instead chose to favour mobility in a 4-4-1-1 formation - with Kris Commons playing off the Venezualen newcomer, Miku - that morphed into a 4-3-3 when James Forrest drew level with the other two as Celtic pressed upfield.

They began the evening in forceful mode and Scott Brown, restored to midfield after his recent hip injury, found himself alongside a man after his own heart in Victor Wanyama, to judge by the Kenyan's biting tackles which helped Celtic achieve early dominance that saw them win two corner kicks in succession. In each case - one from the right, the other from the left - Commons' delivery was dangerous but the final touch proved elusive.

Benfica inevitably bedded into the proceedings but were surprisingly ragged in possession, perhaps a consequence of losing Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia to Manchester City and Zenit St Petersburg respectively, not to mention the suspended Maxi Pereira.

Nevertheless, neat work by the Benfica midfield pair of Nemanja Matic and Pablo Aimar caught Celtic on the back foot and produced the first outstanding chance of the evening when Moreno Rodrigo chased a diagonal dropping cross and forced Fraser Forster into a one-handed take under pressure.

Alarmingly, Celtic also left themselves wide open to a sucker punch at their third corner kick when a simple clearance from the Portuguese box caught them undermanned in the centre of the field, where Nicolas Gaitan would have had the freedom of the home half but for a full stretch lunging interception by Kelvin Wilson that spun the ball out of play off the Argentine.

As the teams went inside for the interval, Lennon was entitled to be cautiously optimistic about the chance of edging a valuable win, but his immediate task was to regenerate Celtic's early momentum and somehow contrive to add a cutting edge.

There was encouragement in this regard when Commons forced a free- kick nine minutes after the break and once again created menace inside Artur's box when a misplaced clearance fell to Adam Matthews, whose powerfully struck return on the bounce was goal bound until a deflection from Enzo Perez took it wide.

The ebb and flow of the first 45 minutes was, however, again in evidence when Benfica began to exert a grip in midfield and, when they were able to break three on three against the stretched Celtic defence, Aimar and Rodrigo released Gaitan for a close range drive that was blocked by Forster.

Lennon's response was to replace Mikael Lustig with Thomas Rogne and Emilio Izaguirre with Gary Hooper, withdrawing Charlie Mulgrew from midfield to left-back. The brief surge of energy triggered by these changes was met in kind by Benfica, although Commons almost broke the deadlock with an audacious 40-yard chip which Artur took on the scurry - but that was as close as Celtic were to come.

Celtic (4-4-1-1): Forster; Matthews, Lustig (Rogne 63), Wilson, Izaguirre (Hooper 66); Forrest, Brown, Wanyama, Mulgrew; Commons; Miku. Subs: Zaluska (g), Ambrose, Lassad, Slane, Watt. Booked: Wanyama, Izaguirre, Brown.

Benfica (4-5-1): Artur; Almeida, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo; Gaitan (Nolito 82), Matic, Aimar (Cardozo 63), Perez, Rodrigo (Cesar 70); Salvio. Subs: Lopes (g), Lima, Vitor, Gomes. Booked: Matic, Aimar, Nolito.

Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).

 




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