These are good times for The Celtic Football Club. Schadenfreude first, as clubs do not exist in a vacuum and this is the way of it, and while the Bhoys set out on a Champions League journey, Rangers are surveying the wreckage of their challenge for the Ramsdens Cup, having last night been knocked out of a competition for clubs outside the top flight by Queen of the South. Still, it allows them to concentrate on the league, which might not be a bad thing.
Meanwhile despite St Johnstone's Rowan Vine, Basingstoke's second-best footballing export behind Tom Cleverley, putting Celtic to the sword at the weekend, Neil Lennon's team are still well placed in the SPL, a division they're hot favourites to win. And this Champions League group stage should wipe out their £8m overdraft.
Also, while the Portuguese giants Benfica certainly have the tools to put a stop to Celtic's gallop tonight - they're 11-10 favourites to win this match - history appears to be in the home side's corner. Benfica might have reached the quarter finals of this competition earlier this year, while Celtic's last appearance at this stage came four years ago, when they ended up bottom of their group. But while Celtic have only made it through the group stage twice in six attempts, those two successful campaigns came when they were drawn alongside Benfica.
Even the head-to-head record points to a home win tonight. In the 2007/08 Champions League, Celtic lost 1-0 at the Stadium of Light, then won 1-0 at Parkhead. The season before, they won 3-0 in Glasgow, then lost 3-0 in Lisbon. And in the 1969/70 European Cup second round, they won 3-0 at home before losing 3-0 away, only to make it through to the quarter finals on the toss of a coin. It's a record of remarkable symmetry. If Celtic do manage a win tonight, they should probably keep it to one or two goals, because they'll just be setting themselves up for a thrashing in Portugal otherwise.
But let's not get too carried away. Meetings with Benfica may have augured well for Celtic in the past, but history counts for little when the whistle goes. And at some point, something has to give. Benfica may be without their suspended pair Luisao and Maxi Pereira, but they're in form, having won their last two games 5-0 and 3-0, while Celtic's casual start to the season is actually their worst for 14 years. Oo-er.
Kick off: 7.45pm in both the Scottish and Portuguese money.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Lustig, Wilson, Izaguirre, Forrest,
Brown, Wanyama, Mulgrew, Commons, Miku.
Subs: Zaluska, Ambrose, Nouioui, Rogne, Slane, Watt, Hooper.
Benfica: Artur Moraes, Almeida, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo,
Matic, Salvio, Perez, Gaitan, Aimar, Rodrigo.
Subs: Paulo Lopes, Cardozo, Bruno Cesar, Nolito, Lima, Miguel Vitor, Gomes.
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)
The teams are out, the stands are bouncing, the music is blaring ... and we're off! Celtic kick off. Commons grabs himself a bit of space down the inside left, and looks to float a chip into the top-right corner from the best part of 40 yards. Confident. Over confident, perhaps, but that's better than retreating into one's shell. The ball flies over the bar.
2 min: This is a brilliant start by Celtic. The ball's clipped down the inside-left channel. Miku wins a header, knocking the ball back for Commons, who screws a poor first-time effort well wide right of the target. The ball doesn't even go out. Benfica clear. But this is a positive opening salvo from the Scottish champions.
3 min: Neil Lennon is sitting in the dugout, arms tightly crossed, with a face on. Is this news?
4 min: Space for Mulgrew down the left. His cross is deflected out for a corner on the left. The set piece is sent in deep, forcing Melgarejo to head behind for another corner, this time on the right. Commons puts the ball into the mixer, and there's a wee scramble, Jardel hacking clear from his own six-yard box under pressure from a sea of green. "Interesting comparison between the leagues in Scotland and England to be made," writes Simon McMahon. "It may be early season but Motherwell, Hibs, St. Mirren and (the world famous) Dundee United are all above Celtic. In England, the top four are in place already. And they used to say the Scottish league was uncompetitive. Maybe rather than being its death knell, the demise of Rangers has breathed new life into the Scottish game?" Yep, I'd say so. Can't remember the last time the likes of Peterhead, Elgin, East Stirling and Annan were regularly on the back pages. And that's likely to continue for the rest of the season, especially if Rangers can't get their act together away from hope. As for the SPL, it'll still be a fair old surprise if Celtic don't win the league this season. But Motherwell and Dundee United have been fairly consistent for a while now, so hopefully both of them (at least) can give the champions a good run for their money. I'd pay ready cash to see someone outside the Old Firm win the league in Scotland, but the window of opportunity's only going to be open for so long.
6 min: Izaguirre clatters into Andre Almeida. For a minute it looks like he's going to be booked for this clumsy, poor-timed episode, but no. Benfica sweep down the other end, winning a free kick 30 yards out on the left. Aimar swings a ball deep towards the far post, but there's too much on it, and it sails out harmlessly for a goal kick. Celtic will be happy enough with this.
9 min: Wanyama looks to break down the right, but he's cynically checked by Garay, who cleverly goes down holding his coupon in order to escape any sanction from the referee.
11 min: It's degenerated very quickly into a load of harum-scarum nonsense, this.
12 min: Commons loops a long free kick into the Benfica area from a deep position on the left. The ball's headed clear, out to the right, where Forrest takes a touch with a view to skipping past Melgarejo down the wing. Unfortunately, that touch is so strong the ball's in danger of demolishing the stand behind the goal.
15 min: Andre Almeida curls in a cross from the right. Lustig does well to head behind for a corner under pressure at the near post from Rodrigo. The corner, from the right, is slipped back down the wing to Salvio, who from the corner of the area hits a first-time shot towards the top-left corner. The ball whips over the crossbar, but wasn't too far away. Celtic were half asleep there.
17 min: Gaitan twists and turns down the left and forces a corner off Matthews. The ball's sent in and causes mild panic in the Celtic defence, but Salvio can't control when in a bit of space level with the right-hand post, and the danger is gone. Benfica are beginning to get into this now.
19 min: Celtic respond well, through Commons down the right wing. He whips a low cross into the centre, but Miku doesn't bother coming to meet it, and by the time he attacks the ball, Jardel has stepped in the way and is clattered. Free kick to Benfica. If Miku had moved towards the near post, he might have got an effort on target there.
21 min: Wanyama is booked for shoving Perez in the back as the Benfica midfielder looks to break into a lot of space down the inside-right channel. He can have no complaints.
24 min: It's tipping down in Glasgow. As far as action goes at the minute, that's your lot.
26 min: Beautiful one-touch football between Miku and Commons down the left. The former's set scampering into space by a crisp pass from the latter, but the striker can't return the favour with his low cutback into the area. Benfica clear, but Celtic weren't too far away from opening their opponents up there. Much better; a spark of quality after a few minutes of turgid nonsense.
28 min: Garay needlessly clatters into the back of Commons in order to challenge for a high ball the Celtic player was never going to win in a million years. Free kick to Celtic, 30 yards out, down the right. Commons floats a diagonal ball towards Wanyama at the far post, but the big man can't plant the nut on the ball, and it skims off the top of his head, out for a goal kick.
30 min: It's not been particularly good, this game, and the Parkhead faithful have shut their faces as a result. Still, Celtic will be happy enough with the way this has gone so far. Forster hasn't had a save to make, and the team are slowly reacclimatising to this level of football.
32 min: There's me and my big daft mouth. Rodrigo scampers clear into the area down the inside left. Forster is forced to come off his line, and does marvellously well to spread himself in front of the player and get a hand in to guide the ball away. He clatters Rodrigo afterwards, Benfica claiming a penalty, but the referee is having none of it. Superb goalkeeping. Wilson hacks clear.
35 min: Izaguirre is booked for a ludicrously late lunge on Salvio down the right. Free kick to Benfica in a dangerous position. Aimar clips it to the near post. Celtic hack clear. The ball breaks to Perez, just outside the D. He takes a touch to set himself, and with little backlift crashes a ball towards the top left. He overcooks the effort, the ball sailing over the bar. But Celtic have suddenly started giving up chances.
37 min: No, this game's really not very interesting. By way of illustration, look what this report's only reader has been up to during the past few minutes. "The sum of the players shirt numbers for Celtic tonight is 202," drones Simon McMahon. "The numbers go 1,2,3,6,7,8,15,21,23,49,67. If Hooper (88) was playing instead of Miku the total would be nearer 300." It's exactly like this.
38 min: Izaguirre miscontrols in the middle of his own half, allowing Aimar to saunter forward with the ball. He slides a pass out right to Salvio, who gets a shot away from a tight angle. Forster parries, but it doesn't really matter, as Salvio is rather tightly flagged offside. Celtic are beginning to live very dangerously.
39 min: Brown and Wanyama clatter Garay in a pincer movement. A couple of quite subtle fouls, but Wanyama especially wants to watch himself here.
40 min: Miku wins a corner for Celtic down the left. Commons sends the ball into an area populated only by the black away shirts of Benfica. The visitors tear forward, five on two, and only a spectacular last-ditch tackle on the halfway line by Wilson, aquaplaning in from deep, saves the day. I'd say Celtic need to hear the half-time whistle in order to regroup.
43 min: Benfica flood forward yet again. Commons is extremely fortunate to avoid a booking for a cynical shove on Perez, who was threatening to scamper into dangerous territory. Aimar stands over the free kick. He floats it into the area, where Forster comes out to claim with confidence. Parkhead is pretty quiet at the moment, anxiety having taken over.
HALF TIME: Celtic 0-0 Benfica. Celtic, who were rocking and making lots of individual errors, make it to the break without conceding. Time for Neil Lennon to have a calming word or two. He can do calming words, yes?
HALF-TIME ADVERTISEMENT for defunct chain of piss-poor supermarkets:
The first sponsors of the Scottish League, unless I'm much mistaken, which in fairness I often am, so don't quote me on that. Check out the trough of raw meat on the 20-second mark. Shops aren't so keen on letting punters finger the chops and sausages these days, are they?
And we're off again! No changes. It would be nice if this second half was an improvement in terms of drama and/or aesthetics, but Celtic may be happy enough with a point. We'll see.
46 min: Matic is booked for planting his elbow on the bridge of Miku's honk. No great intent, as the two went up for a high ball, but clumsy and worthy of punishment.
48 min: Mulgrew slides a ball down the inside-left for Commons, who turns on his heels on the edge of the area and has a dig towards the bottom left. The shot's deflected away, but that's a good positive sign for Celtic.
49 min: Wanyama really does want to watch himself. He's clattered into the back of Garay, in the manner of a galoot, and concedes another free kick. He's walking a tightrope, albeit not in a particularly elegant fashion.
50 min: From the free kick, a scramble, then a corner. Nobody in a black shirt can get a shot away, but Celtic were at sixes and sevens at the back there, veering at one point towards eight.
53 min: Forrest turns on the jets and rocks Melgarejo's boat down the right. He gets to the byline, but his ball inside isn't particularly cultured, and is easily cleared by Jardel.
55 min: Izaguirre is hacked down as he scampers along the left-hand touchline. Commons swings the free kick into the area. The ball breaks to Matthews on the edge of the box. He hits a first time shot into the ground, but off a defender for a corner on the left. The ball's swung to the far post, where Lustig heads lamely down and wide right. But this is an improvement from Celtic.
56 min: Wilson, under pressure from Rodrigo, chases back after a long ball down the middle. After making two exceptionally clumpish touches, he eventually turns and clears. All's well in the end, but for a second, it looked like the Benfica man was going to zip clear of the lumbering defender.
58 min: Aimar is booked for a clumsy late clip on Wanayama. Here's this report's co-author Simon McMahon: "Your half-time entertainment brought back memories of Dundee United's Uefa Cup run of 1986-87 when we went to the final, beating Barcelona and Borussia Moenchengladbach along the way, proudly displaying the VG logo on our shirts, a chain of small supermarkets almost as piss poor as Fine Fare. Today's equivalent would be something like the Uefa Champions League, sponsored by Lidl." Yes, my heart aches for the return of piss-poor sponsors. Chelsea would be so much more loveable if they carried the Londis logo on their shirts.
61 min: Benfica step it up a bit, winning a couple of corners down the left, after causing quite the kerfuffle in the Celtic area. The second sees Aimar hit a low dipper towards the near post, Garay stooping to guide a clever header towards the bottom left. Forster does brilliantly to react and shovel the ball out for a third corner. Nothing comes of that, although Celtic make a full-blown 1940s Hollywood melodrama of clearing.
63 min: A couple of changes, one for each side. Benfica swap Aimar for Oscar Cardozo, and then the home side replace Lustig with Rogne.
65 min: A delicious Cryuff Turn by Commons down the left. He's in space, and whips a dangerous low ball towards the near post, where Andre Almeida nearly deflects the ball past his own keeper and into the bottom-left corner. But Artur is all over it. Celtic have shown flashes since the restart, but it's required an opponent to work the keeper.
66 min: Hooper replaces Izaguirre.
68 min: Miku forces a corner down the right. There's another corner, and then nothing. A futile period of pressure.
70 min: Bruno Cesar replaces Rodrigo.
71 min: Salvio has a dig, cutting in from the right, from 20-plus yards. It flies 20-plus yards over the bar.
73 min: Hooper dances around, up and down the left like a cut-price music-hall act, but to little effect. On the touchline, Neil Lennon offers a round of applause.
74 min: Benfica step it up a bit. First Bruno Cesar sends a speculative dipping volley just over the bar from 30 yards - it wasn't far from dropping into the top right corner - and then Salvio makes good down the right, cutting back for Gaitan to sidefoot goalwards. His shot is deflected out for a corner, which comes to naught.
75 min: This is opening up a wee bit now. Celtic break upfield. Commons spots Artur miles off his line, and attempts to hoick one home from the halfway line. It's wide left of goal and short of juice. Artur claims.
77 min: Salvio sends a ball bounding through the Celtic area from the right. Forster and Wilson are all over the shop, and they nearly let Oscar Cardozo in at the far post. Celtic eventually hack clear in a hot panic.
80 min: Miku wheechs down the inside-right channel, looking to make space for a shot but making do with a corner. The ball's hung above the keeper's head, allowing Rogne to come bumbling in like an oaf, conceding a free kick by wiping out three men. Not particularly clever, and it allows Artur to roll around on the floor awhile, eating up minutes more precious to Celtic than they are to Benfica.
81 min: Forrest dances into the area down the right. With Melgarejo breathing down his neck, the winger opts to clip over his own heels in search of a penalty. The referee isn't fooled.
83 min: Nolito comes on for Gaitan.
84 min: Oscar Cardozo looks to chest down a looping ball on the edge of the area, and break into the area down the inside left. But he gets far too much on the nudge forward, and the chance is gone.
85 min: Nolito dances right across the front of the Celtic area looking to get a shot away, but Brown is sticking to him, Moe Tucker style, like glue. That's brilliant defensive work by the Celtic captain, who has been everywhere tonight, without executing too many rash tackles either.
87 min: Benfica lump a long ball forward. Matthews needlessly flicks a header backwards and out of play to the left of goal. Corner. The ball's flicked to the near post, where Wanyama shoulders it across the face of goal and out of play on the right. From the corner, the ball's worked wide right to Andre Almeida, who whips a cross in from the wing. Oscar Cardozo meets the ball with a powerful header, firing just over the bar. That was so close to a late winner.
88 min: "Brown has been everywhere tonight, without executing too many rash tackles either." That was your crack reporter on 85 minutes. So here he is picking up a yellow for a totally needless clip on Oscar Cardozo, followed by a wanton trundle into his chest. Naughty Scott Brown. Saucy Scott Brown. Pulitzer, please!
90 min: Bruno Cesar is booked for a wild swipe at Brown's ankles. This is ending in scrappy fashion, albeit in an entertaining, old-school way.
FULL TIME: Celtic 0-0 Benfica. Well that wasn't much to write home about. So I won't. That's that!
VG > modern-day behemoths like Tesco. "Just catching up with the MBM now and and thought I'd let you and the other reader know, as he brought it up, that I was actually at the home legs of Dundee United's quarter, semi and final that year in the UEFA Cup as a star struck 11 year old," begins Neil Baxter. "My dad took me to the quarter (his mate was a scout for United at the time and got us tickets), mainly just to see Barca, then when United unceremoniously humped them out of it, we went back for the semi, then the final, only to see them lose to a young Sven Goran Eriksson's team from Gothenburg. Anyhoo, the reason I'm writing is that I had a programme from the semi final night, got it signed by all the United players, and a couple of Barca players too, with the exception of Lineker, who got a couple of heavies to bundle us obviously threatening autograph hunting children out the way. MArk Hughes was a total gent though, stopped and chatted with us all, signed autographs for everyone. I wonder if the programme would be worth money now, but unfortunately someone stole it years ago."