Celtic 0 Benfica 0: Hoops do their level best and kick off Euro campaign with a point
Four years since their last participation in the Champions League, Celtic managed to look comfortable in their surroundings.
On a rousing, pulsating night in Glasgow’s east end, Benfica claimed their first ever draw at Parkhead.
That they still await their first-ever goal there in four attempts spanning back to 1969 says much, however, for a dogged and resilient display from Neil Lennon’s team.
Battle: Celtic’s Victor Wanyama (centre) vies for the ball with Benfica’s Eduardo Salvio
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Lustig (Rogne 63), Wilson,Izaguirre (Hooper 66), Forrest, Brown, Wanyama, Mulgrew,Commons, Miku.
Subs Not Used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Nouioui, Slane, Watt.
Booked: Wanyama, Izaguirre, Brown.
Benfica: Artur Moraes, Almeida, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo, Matic, Salvio, Perez, Gaitan (Nolito 82), Aimar (Cardozo 63), Rodrigo (Bruno Cesar 70).
Subs Not Used: Paulo Lopes, Lima,Miguel Vitor, Gomes.
Booked: Matic,Aimar,Bruno Cesar.
Ref: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).
Shorn of players and resources in recent seasons, Scotland’s champions can regard this as a point won rather than two home points lost.
Against a team who has been persistent quarter finalists in European competition in the last three seasons, the hosts found this a frustrating night, shorn of genuine, bona-fide chances.
There was a penalty claim for James Forrest when the wide man collided with Benfica defender Melgarejo nine minutes from time.
The claims were borne, however, of hope rather than genuine expectation. ‘I think a draw was a fair result,’ said Lennon afterwards.
We didn’t work the goalkeeper as much as we would have liked but, saying that, I was very pleased with the team.’
That captain Scott Brown – described by his manager as a ‘colossus’ – was the only player in green and white who had ever graced UEFA’s blue riband competition before made this a satisfactory return to the fray, however.
As Lennon put it, Celtic are still learning at this level. All whilst trying to juggle resources dwarved by their group opponents and with a raft of first-pick players unavailable.
Gary Hooper was the latest to fall victim to an unspecified injury pre-match, emerging only for the last half hour to partner the isolated figure of Miku, the new signing from Getafe.
For a player making only his second start in a Celtic jersey, it was a substantial ask. A fact reflected in periods of lengthy isolation between the striker and his supporting team-mates Kris Commons and Forrest.
Foot in: Scott Brown (left) challenges Pablo Aimar at Celtic Park
Commons performed well enough, Forrest less so. All over the field, however, the home team were weakened by both injury and loss of form.
And, it should be said, a major step up in the level of opposition from either HJK Helsinki r Helsingborgs.
Benfica rarely allowed Celtic an inch in a dogged struggle for the home side and created the better chances.
Ultimately, then, the point shared could be a disappointment to no one. With Charlie Mulgrew at left midfield, Celtic started well enough. Inspired by the flashing cameras and fervour of the occasion, they began in feverish fashion; as if seeking to cram three lost years into the opening 10 minutes.
Benfica, devoid of their own captain and defensive stalwart Luisao by a late FIFA suspension, were nervy by contrast.
In time, the black-shirted visitors would silence the baying crowd, settling into their stride and dominating possession for lengthy spells Celtic, however, lacked nothing in motivation or perspiration.
Or in raw energy. In truth, the excitement transmitted from the towering stands did nothing to aid the composure levels of the home team.
Miku’s deft lay-off with his chest in the opening two minutes found Commons thumping the ball towards the ground rather than the goal – a not uncommon instance.
Collision course: Fraser Forster stands tall to block Benfica’s Rodrigo
Employing an effective pressing game which harried and hassled Celtic players in possession, Benfica eventually found their stride.
And they almost capitalised more than once on the nervous wreck that is Emilio Izaguirre. The Honduran is not the same man who won a player of the year award prior to a serious and lengthy injury last season.
He looked a liability here at times. The first golden chance of the game came for Benfica in 32 minutes.
After some neat passing interplay, Enzo Perez dinked a deft ball over the top of the Parkhead defence, where Kelvin Wilson formed an improbable Champions League pairing with Mikael Lustig.
The duo performed with relative composure until the Swede was replaced by Thomas Rogne in the second half.
As the striker Rodrigo advanced on goal, however, he seemed certain to score until Fraser Forster stretched out an instinctive right paw and took the sting out of the effort.
Benfica claimed for a penalty, insisting Forster also played the man. Watched by England goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence, the giant keeper ended the evening unscathed. That despite some edgy moments.
Good to be back: Celtic fans celebrate their Champions League return
With Miku dangerously starved of possession and Forrest failing to take the ball to the byeline, the half-time interval offered Lennon the opportunity to regroup and rethink. The first instruction was to tell Izaguirre to get his house in order.
The second was to Forrest. The Scotland winger had looked like a little Bhoy lost in the first phase of what many expect to be a lengthy and productive relationship with the Champions League.
The idea from the start of the second period, then, was to get at the left back Melgarejo as often as possible.
It was easier said than done. The penalty claim aside, the young winger struggled here. In contrast Pablo Aimar, the Benfica playmaker, was imperious at times.
The little Argentine maestro tired as the hour mark arrived but before leaving the pitch to be replaced by the formidable striker Oscar Cardozo he almost teed up a Benfica opener on two occasions. The first, a deft penalty-box layoff, saw Nicolas Gaitan fire a deflected shot wide for a corner.
Come on ref! Celtic winger James Forrest feels he should have had a penalty
Aimar took the set piece himself and an Ezequiel Garay back-flicked header at the near post forced Forster to push wide.
Aimar’s removal from the fray moments later could hardly be considered a relief. Cardozo, the towering Paraguayan striker, had scored the winning goal when these clubs last met in Lisbon in 2007.
Celtic, then, had a whole new threat to deal with. In a quest to relieve the pressure, Lennon called Hooper to the fray, also replacing Lustig with Rogne in central defence.
The arrival of Hooper for Izaguirre was almost an act of mercy. As Mulgrew dropped to left back and Commons went to left midfield, Celtic changed to a more conventional 4-4-2.
Claim: Benfica defender Jardel appears to handle the ball in the box following Charlie Mulgrew’s (left) attack
Still, however, Benfica created more in attack. The visitors again came close to the breakthrough when Salvio skipped past an iffy Mulgrew challenge to cut the ball into the path of Gaitan.
The midfielder’s shot was blocked but, as in the first half, Celtic were flying by the seat of their pants.
A rare moment of respite saw Commons tried to catch Artur off his line from the halfway line in 75 minutes.
That Celtic were doing their shooting from the centre circle said much for how the game had panned out. In the event a point apiece was an acceptable result for Celtic.
Frustrated: The Celtic players walk off the pitch after securing only a point at home to Benfica