Benfica slow Celtic’s European progress on a disappointing night

November 21, 2012 in Europe

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Well, it had to happen, didn’t it? I miss THAT game and then watch this one, only to be thoroughly underwhelmed. By all accounts, two weeks ago, the men in green and white hoops were magnificent against a Barcelona side widely considered one of the best in the history of the game.

They came away from that game as 2-1 victors and, following the Barcelona victory against Spartak Moscow earlier in the day, only needed a score draw from their visit to Benfica to secure qualification into the knockout stages for the first time since the 2007/08 season. But it didn’t really work out that way.

Celtic started slowly, and within the first ten minutes, the Hoops slow start was punished. Adam Matthews mis-hit a clearance into the path of Eduardo Salvio, whose cross found Ola John, who half-volleyed home from the edge of the six-yard box. Celtic were struggling, and another ball played through by Salvio was hit just wide by striker Oscar Cardozo. Salvio was proving a handful for Celtic and they were being over-run with superb skills from the tricky winger.

It looked that this would be a walkover for the Lisbon side, but as always, football is a fickle mistress, and half an hour in, Celtic equalized with their first attempt on target. Charlie Mulgrew’s deep corner evaded everyone but Georgios Samaras, who came in on the back post and nodded it in. It was an equaliser that they didn’t deserve but served to greatly lift the performance levels. And those fifteen minutes before half-time were a lot more even.

Particularly in defence, the centre backs and the goalkeeper were raising their levels, and just before half-time, Fraser Forster made a superb save at the feet to stop John. This form continued just after the second half with both Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson repelling everything Benfica could throw at them at the heart of defence. Their other winger, Lima, was as dazzling as Salvio had been in the first half, and Forster was called into several more saves before the defences were breached for the second time.

The impetus Celtic had developed from the end of the first half seemed to have faded, and they were keen just to protect the 1-1 draw which would have been enough to see them through. But on the 70th minute, Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay scored an outstanding volley from close range. A ball from deep on the right was crossed in and Luisao managed to out-jump his marker and knock the ball down to Garay, who had peeled off his marker. The defender finished with aplomb.

Celtic reacted immediately, and midfielder Victor Wanyama was unlucky to see his curled effort from the edge of the box stopped by an outstanding save by Artur. The game was becoming stretched and they were almost punished at the other end with a similar Benfica shot hitting the crossbar, and only minutes later, Forster was called into making a brilliant diving save from Cardozo’s vicious free-kick.

But in general, Benfica seemed happy to try and hold onto the lead rather than trying to go for a decisive third goal, while Celtic managed to raise themselves for the last ten minutes. Substitute Tony Watt had two fantastic opportunities to either pass the ball to a player better positioned or make a hero for himself; he failed both times on both accounts. Beram Kayal also had a great opportunity but just couldn’t get himself over his volley and it went harmlessly high and wide, on a night that just didn’t go Celtic’s way.