Barcelona still clicking, Celtic’s chance to scrounge – UEFA Champions League Group G preview

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Over the last four years, it’s been title-then-semifinal for Barcelona in UEFA Champions League. Having moved on to a new coach, the four-time champions will look to continue that trend, starting Wednesday against Spartak:

Barcelona vs. Spartak Moscow

Camp Nou, Barcelona, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Barcelona seems have recovered from their Supercopa loss to Real Madrid. Perfect through four league matches, Barça has a two-point cushion at the top to La Liga’s standings. More important: The 2010-11 champions have an eight point lead on Real Madrid, having already picked up a key two-point edge versus common opponents.

That’s as smooth a transition as you can imagine from Pep Guardiola to Tito Vilanova. The change has been so seamless, few outside Cataluyna are talking about its implications. There’s less formation changing and more squad rotation, but with the team perfect in Spain, there isn’t much to talk about. All the Vilanova era has brought us thus far is the feeling the Blaugrana will not miss a beat.

More: Group E Group F Group G Group H

That’s bad news for Spartak, of course. Last year’s RPL runners up are big underdogs heading into Wednesday’s match, even if Russian teams have had relative historical success at the Nou Camp. Barcelona’s welcomed Russian squads five times and allowed two of them to leave winners: CSKA Moscow in 1992 and, more relevantly, Rubin Kazan in 2009.

Even though it was three years ago, the Rubin result actually matters, and it’s mattered to a number of teams since Barcelona’s era of dominance started in 2008-09. That’s when Barcelona started the greatest team of all-time discussion began, back when it was unclear there was a plan to beat Barcelona that didn’t involve hoping they had a bad day. Rubin, however, showed you can allow Barcelona to bring the ball onto you, stay deep and compact, and beat them by counter attacking. José Mourinho varied this approach the same year with Inter, eliminating Barcelona on the way to his second European Cup, but the overall theme was the same: You could snap back at Barcelona.

Not having to play that way in Russia, it’s unclear whether Unai Emery’s team can execute that plan. But the coach, having just moved from Valencia, will be very familiar with what needs to be done, and with the likes of Emmanuel Eminike, Romolu, Rafael Carioca and Juan Manuel Jurado, Emery has some interesting pieces. Whether they’re enough to beat Barcelona probably depends more on Barça’s play than Spartak’s.

More: Tuesday’s winners and losers

Celtic vs. Benfica

Celtic Park, Glasgow, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Let’s start with something controversial (that shouldn’t be), something that might look incredibly stupid a few hours from now: Celtic may be the worst team in this tournament. Just saying.

Evidence, you ask? That’s difficult considering they haven’t played a group phase match yet (this is also why my view could turn out to be very wrong). There is a strong circumstantial case, though.

  • First, Scotland has proven very week in European play in recent seasons. The league rarely busts a team into the knockout stage of Champions League or Europa. The last time an SPL team made the Champions League group stage, Rangers finished last with a -9 goal difference.
  • Second, the league continues to get weaker, beyond just the Rangers situation. Their television deals aren’t keeping up with their former competitors, and (as a result) they’re drawing fewer name players north. Celtic just lost their best midfielder (Ki Sung-Yueng) to Swansea without being able to pick up a comprable replacement.
  • Third, consider the seemingly regular struggles Scottish League players have adapting to places like the English Championship. (Though former Ranger Nikica Jelavic at Everton? Good on you.)

Tomorrow Celtic has a chance to offset the SPL’s descent when Benfica visits Glasgow. In three previous trips to Celtic Park (1969, 2006, 2007), the Eagles have three losses, shut out each time. If the present’s working against Celtic (including their worst league start in 13 years), the past couldn’t be more in their favor.

Benfica, on the other hand, sit first in Portugal, scoring 10 goals in their first three league matches. This comes off a quarterfinals run last season, one which saw them eliminate Zenit St. Petersburg before losing to would-be champions Chelsea.

Jorge Jesus’s side is without Javi García (sold to Manchester City), Axel Witsel (Zenit), and Javier Saviola (Málaga) – three huge losses. In their place, Benfica’s gone young. Rodrigo Moreno’s scored three goals in as many games, while Ola John (FC Twente) and Eduardo Salvio (Atlético Madrid) were brought in with a combined 42 years between them.

After being drawn at home by Braga in the season opener, it looks like Benfica may have taken a small step back. If it’s not a step back, then it’s a reset while the youth beds in. It may be enough of a reset for Celtic to scrounge a point off Portugal’s leaders.