Celtic aim to deliver knockout blow in city of their finest hour
A win for Celtic against Benfica in Lisbon will guarantee them a place in the last 16
Celtic may never surpass their night in Lisbon in 1967 but they can achieve something special there this evening nonetheless. If Neil Lennon's team beat Benfica they will qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in five years.
It would be a remarkable success, at least as impressive as their regaining the Scottish Premier League title last season from Rangers. European competition is becoming harder and harder for Scottish clubs, given the relative financial struggles of the once-powerful Scottish league.
The knock-out stages of the European Cup are certainly not unfamiliar territory for Celtic. They famously won the competition 45 years ago, the first British side to do so, beating Internazionale 2-1. That was in the now-unused Estadio Nacional, which has since been usurped by the Estadio da Luz, where Celtic play tonight.
In 2006 and 2007, they also escaped from the group stage, losing to Barcelona and Milan in the last 16 respectively. This season they can make it back into the elite end of the European club game, having already beaten the Catalan giants.
That famous victory over Barcelona two weeks ago was one of the great European nights of the modern era at Celtic Park. It was surely the finest moment of Lennon's tenure so far. And it transformed Group G from an even fight for second place into one where, behind Barcelona, Celtic had a very obvious advantage.
Benfica are three points behind Celtic. If the Portuguese side lose, they cannot catch the Scots. A score draw, should Barcelona win at Spartak Moscow in the earlier kick-off, will also send Celtic through and Benfica out.
The hosts, then, may very well start the match knowing they need to win just to stay in the competition. The anxiety is all with the Portuguese side. Celtic assistant manager, Johan Mjallby, knows this. "We are in a great position," he said yesterday at Glasgow Airport ahead of the flight of the Celtic squad. "There is more pressure on Benfica because they really need to win this game."
Before the defeat of Barcelona there was another important moment, the 3-2 win at Spartak Moscow, Celtic's first away victory in the Champions League group stage. Celtic know how to win these matches and while Benfica have some excellent players, Celtic will not be overawed.
"It is a difficult game, it's a Champions League match away from home and we really respect Benfica, we think they are a really good side," said Mjallby. "But the confidence is there, we have shown that we can play away from home, so why not go out and nick that vital point?"
"[Benfica] are probably going to go all out to win the game and they are going to be strong at home, a good side going forward, well organised. But at the end of the day we have picked up a lot of confidence from our away games and we know that if we defend really well we can get something from this game."
Even if Celtic lose they will only need to better Benfica's result on 5 December, when the Portuguese side travel to Barcelona and Spartak Moscow come to Celtic Park.
Celtic have Scott Brown and Gary Hooper fit again. "Joe Ledley and Miku are back in contention and we have to wait to see how they are tonight when we train," said Mjallby.
Benfica: Artur, Pereira, Jardel, Garay, Almeida, Matic, Gaitan, Perez, Lima, Cardozo, Rodrigo
Celtic: Forster, Mulgrew, Wilson, Ambrose, Matthews, Commons, Brown, Ledley, Wanyama*, Lassad. Samaras
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Estadio da Luz
TV Sky Sports 2. Referee V Kassai (Hungary)
Odds: Benfica 1-2 Draw 10-3 Celtic 5-1
*one booking away from suspension
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