Celtic made their long anticipated return to Europe this week with a goalless draw against Benfica in their first Champions League group game. What can we take from the Scottish club’s return to the big time?
Well, to begin with, over 50,000 fans packed themselves into Celtic Park to create one of the most intimidating away atmospheres that another European team is likely to encounter. Celtic is a notoriously difficult place to go and try to take points from especially when every one of those 50,000 fans is supporting the home side. On the support front, everyone is United and seems keen to drive the club forward.
Tactically the manager Neil Lennon deserves some praise. Celtic were very organised when they did not have the ball which made it difficult for Benfica to break them down. They deserve a lot of respect for getting a side to play to their defensive strengths. The only worry is that they only managed to create five shots on goal with three on target. These are stats that must improve if Celtic are to get through the group stage and into the knock out rounds where anything can happen.
“Benfica went into the game as heavy favourites and I don't think you could call the game. I hope we've gained a little bit more respect from the footballing world. There's a lot of positives to come out of it and we move forward with a lot of confidence,” said Lennon after the game.
The next point is all about possession. European sides do not give the ball away easily and Celtic need to hang onto possession better and be more precise with passing in the final third. Over the 90 minutes Celtic had 48% of possession which, again, needs to improve if they have aspirations to play in the last 16 of the Champions League this season. Benfica only just shaded this statistic but it is worrying for Celtic when you consider that the Portuguese side were playing on the counter for most of the match.
For Celtic to progress then the home form has to be rock solid which makes six points from the next two home games imperative. The reason for this is the record Celtic have away from home in Europe. They have lost 17 of their last 18 matches on the road with only one draw. The evidence at Celtic Park the other night suggests that it could be more of the same unless the manager and the players show the same organisation and are prepared to take a few risks at the vital times.
The biggest area of improvement by far is how much Celtic have utilised the resources they have at their disposal. Celtic have never had a massive squad in any European campaign. The manager has done well to get the balance of the side right and the team is in the best possible shape to progress.
The point is that this season Celtic have cover in key areas and can bring in quality replacements should they pick up injuries. This will keep them in European games for longer and should prevent heavy defeats, turning no points into a point and close draws into three points.
“We will have to maybe get something away from home in one of the games anyway, which we know is a tall order with our history in the competition, but this is a different team and a different animal. We played with real zest and no fear against a class side, so it's a decent start,” added Lennon.
image: © Jan S0L0