Celtic have passport to progress but last 16 visa is on hold

When the draw was made for this season's Champions League, assumptions weren't so much made as definitive predictions boldly declared.

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Celtic have secured a Europa League slot but can still qualify for Champions League last 16
Celtic have secured a Europa League slot but can still qualify for Champions League last 16

The Twitter account of ITV Football announced the news of who was making up Group G with a humorous pop at the Parkhead club: "Bye, bye Celtic. They've drawn Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow."

Neil Lennon can still have the last laugh.

Whatever happens on the final game of this compelling group, Celtic are hanging on to their passports for that little bit longer but it remains to be seen what competition they'll be in.

The Europa League can provide a consolation prize, but Lennon will hanker for the knockout stages of the Champions League, for the revenue, for the glory and for the kudos.

Celtic did not get the result they wanted last night and, truth be told, they won't have too many complaints. They were outplayed for so much of the encounter in Lisbon, but having got themselves back on level terms when Gerogios Samaras cancelled out the impressive Ola John's opener, there was the briefest glimpse of glory.

As the second period progressed, however, and Benfica continued to through everything at Lennon's side it grew increasingly inevitable that the hosts would take all three points.

When Garay lashed the ball home from close range to leave Fraser Forster – who did his reputation no harm at all with another fine performance at this level – no chance at all, it seemed a fair return for the endeavour Benfica had shown.

The stage is set now for a nail-biting finale in a fortnight's time as Celtic square up to Spartak Moscow, a team who are currently rooted to the foot of the table and whose time in Europe is up this season.

Celtic need to beat the Russians and hope that Barcelona do them a favour in the Nou Camp.

If they finish on the same number of points as Benfica – the two teams are currently tied on seven – it will be the Portuguese side who progress courtesy of their now superior head-to-head record against Celtic. Lennon can only hope that the opening night 0-0 draw with their rivals does now come back to haunt them.

The biggest loss for Lennon for this final game will be Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan was booked with just five minutes remaining and is now suspended, a loss that is difficult to quantify given how assertive he has been for Celtic in the Champions League.

Yet, a number of big perform will be required what is bound to be a pulsating final game.

If anyone has been worth their weight in goals for Celtic in this Champions League campaign, it has been Samaras.

Enigmatic, inconsistent and prone to a touch as sloppy as the one which gave Cardozo a glimpse of goal when there was just 60 seconds of this match on the clock, he is nevertheless capable of greatness.

And it is in the Champions League, the biggest stage of all, where the Greek internationalist has reserved his best. This season, Samaras has found the net in Helsinki, in Helsingborg, in Moscow, almost in Barcelona and now in Lisbon.

For large chunks of this game, Samaras and Gary Hooper looked forlorn at the wrong end of the pitch as Benfica dominated. They were rarely glimpsed in that opening 30-minute period until Celtic won a corner. Charlie Mulgrew's delivery was perfect, the finish from Samaras bringing Celtic level and, for a brief period, putting them into the last 16 of the tournament.

They had started the game nervous and tentative, forced into their own area, making sloppy mistakes and losing their shape. In fact, it was the kind of jittery away performance in those early stages that looked like the ghost of Celtic of old on the road.

The goal restored their confidence and brought them out of their shell a little, but in the second half they were under siege as Benfica came at them in wave after wave of attack, although Celtic will feel that they gave the ball away too cheaply and too often.

Mulgrew, who was ill, made way for Beram Kayal, while Kris Commons took over from Scott Brown. Tony Watt came on for the final stretch as Celtic desperately tried to snatch a point that would have given them the key to the last 16.

It didn't come, but they remain alive and kicking.

If Lennon's side have done anything in Europe this season, it is to show they have emphatically overcome the travel sickness in this competition that handicapped them for so long.

It is their old, inimitable home form, though, that they will look to replicate when they face Spartak.

If they are to fly in the face of the wisdom dispensed back in August, they'll need everything in their armoury to progress.


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