There will be precious cargo on board Celtic's flight to Lisbon on Tuesday. Seven members of the first British side to win the European Cup are returning to their spiritual home.
Time has worn away their vigour, but the clock in every Celtic supporter's mind will go back four decades, to when the club's greatest team embraced the Portuguese capital. The success there against Internazionale in the 1967 European Cup final remains indelible, and Billy McNeill will gather the rem-aining players of the Lisbon Lions in the hope of seeing a new group of heroes write their names into Celtic's history.
Since the Champions' League draw was made in August, this has been the Group F fixture that has stirred the imagination of everyone at Celtic. Going back to Lisbon on the 40th anniversary of the season that Jock Stein's celebrated side achieved fame was too good to be true.
The game against Benfica provided a chance for an emotional reunion for the Lisbon Lions, who gathered just seven months ago at the funeral of their iconic winger, Jimmy Johnstone, and Gordon Strachan insisted that McNeill and the others be brought on the official flight.
On Wednesday afternoon, before the encounter at the handsome new Estadio de Luz, the Lisbon Lions will be at their own field of dreams on the other side of the city. The Estadio Nacional has not changed in the 39 years since those black-and-white television pictures brought its image into British homes and Kenneth Wolstenholme's commentary ended with the cry: "That's it, Celtic are champions of Europe!"
Celtic's European reputation was restored under Martin O'Neill, with the club reaching the 2003 Uefa Cup final, but Strachan contributed his own piece of work with the impressive 3-0 defeat of Benfica at Parkhead 12 days ago. Everyone agreed that the atmosphere was one of the best in living memory, but the importance of the result can be measured in the fact that Celtic can now put themselves into the last 16 of the Champions' League if they repeat the success in Benfica's back yard.
The Scottish champions are five points clear of their hosts in the race to claim second place in the group. "Reaching the second phase of the Champions' League is important to us," acknowledged Kenny Miller, who conjured up two sublime finishes in the first encounter.
"In Europe, it's all about progression for the club. Getting to the next stage would be a big step and we've given ourselves a good chance. It's exciting times here. It's been a good start, but we've got a long way to go on both the European and domestic fronts."
Miller is the player who earns almost universal respect from the Lisbon Lions despite the fact that he has only been a Celtic player for four months. Perhaps in his energy and honesty they see a bit of their former selves. All of Stein's players came from the Glasgow area, and Strachan's team could have six Scots on the pitch on Wednesday.
The injuries that will deprive Celtic of Thomas Gravesen and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink put more responsibility on the shoulders of Miller and his colleagues, but he is eager to step up to the plate. "We were without Jan, Thomas and Aiden McGeady for the first game against Benfica," Miller pointed out. "That shows we've got people who can come in and do a good job.
"As a team I think there is still a lot more to come from us. Nobody in the dressing room thinks we're the finished article. We work hard for each other and hopefully we can get better." The Lisbon Lions would be proud of that attitude.Reuse content