Transformed Benfica side will ask questions of Celtic in Lisbon
The lowdown on a much-improved Benfica side ahead of their clash with Celtic, by Andy McDougall.
Celtic travel to Lisbon on a wave of euphoria and know that they can secure a place in the last 16 of the Champions League with the right result against Benfica; however, that will be far from an easy task against the in-form club.
Benfica have won their last seven games domestically and are unbeaten in the Primeira Liga and Portuguese Cup. They sit in second place in the league, only behind leaders Porto on goal difference, and only Celtic and Barcelona have prevented them from scoring this season.
The Benfica side that takes to the pitch at Estádio da Luz against Celtic will undoubtedly be a stronger one than Neil Lennon’s side faced in Glasgow, for a number of reasons.
Back in September the Eagles were only beginning to adjust to the loss of key players Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia, and new players such as Ola John and Lima had not been fully integrated into the squad.
Benfica’s late transfer activity meant that they began the season a little uncertainly as they adapted to major changes in central midfield; Witsel and Garcia were huge players. Now, though, Nemanja Matic is growing into the holding role and ahead of him boss Jorge Jesus has a number of options including Portugal international Carlos Martins, Bruno César and, usually, Enzo Pérez. Meanwhile 19-year-old midfielder André Gomes has shown he’s not out of place at first team level.
On the right wing the talented Salvio continues to impress but it is on the left that new arrival Ola John has given Benfica another option. Pacy, direct and confident, the Dutchman provides stiff competition for Gaitán and Nolito and may well start against Celtic. An unknown quantity, to an extent, as he didn’t feature in the game at Celtic Park, John could pose problems for Mikael Lustig or Adam Matthews.
At the back Jorge Jesus is boosted by the returns from injury and suspension respectively of Maxi Pereira and captain Luisão, neither of whom featured at Parkhead. Maxi is a key player for the Eagles and his absence was a blow for them in Glasgow. The powerful Uruguayan right back loves to get forward and isn’t a stranger to getting an assist or two. He is also a long throw specialist into the bargain.
Centre back Ezequiel Garay has also been passed fit so he will partner Luisão in Jorge Jesus’ first-choice pairing. Left back, however, could still be a potential weak spot in the Benfica team. Neither incumbent of that position this season, Melgarejo or Luisinho, has fully impressed.
Both, while happy going forward, appear suspect defensively and prone to risk-taking and errors. This might be something that Lennon could look to capitalise on, although the continued absence of James Forrest through injury and the lack of a similar out-and-out right winger might hamper any plans to do so.
One of the biggest positives of Benfica’s season so far has been the way late summer signing Lima has hit the ground running at his new club. The Brazilian, who joined from Braga, was joint top scorer in the Primeira Liga last season with Óscar Cardozo, and now united at Benfica the two are forming a formidable partnership at the head of Jorge Jesus’ preferred 4-1-3-2 formation. Lima didn’t make his debut until after the Celtic game but has since found the net eight times. Cardozo leads the club scoring charts, though, with ten. Between the two of them Celtic’s defence will have plenty to preoccupy themselves with in Lisbon.
Celtic will rightly be confident and motivated going into this game but Benfica need the win badly, knowing that failure to do so will almost certainly see them eliminated from the competition.
They have the pace, technical attributes and individual talent to cause Celtic plenty of problems at Estádio da Luz so it is no exaggeration to say that it will take the same levels of concentration and effort that Celtic gave against Barcelona if they want to secure qualification in Lisbon.
Predicted Benfica team: Artur; Maxi Pereira, Luisão, Garay, Melgarejo; Matic; Salvio, Pérez, John; Cardozo, Lima.
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