One of the subtly great things Russia brings to UEFA Champions League is staggered start times. The country is so far east, group stage kickoffs on Russian soil get an early kickoff: 12:00 p.m. Eastern. So thanks to the miracle of Russian geography, we get a Group G doubleheader: Spartak-Celtic the undercard for the main event in Lisbon.
Benfica (Portugal) vs. Barcelona (Spain)
Estádio da Luz, Lisbon, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Imagine Barcelona. Xavi has the ball. He’s just inside the opponents half. You follow his eye line as he scans the field. Messi’s in front of him. Iniesta is slightly to his left. Pedro and Fabregas are floating around. There’s Alves way over on the right. And the defense – that generic, let’s try to absorb this onslaught-defense – is bracing for what Xavi’s about to ignite.
That’s the default approach to Barcelona, though it’s difficult to imagine Benfica fully employing it. It’s just not the kind of blind pragmatism we tend to see from the Eagles, though with no Barcelona in the Portuguese league, they’re given very few chances to do so. The last time Benfica met the real deal, Frank Rijkaard was still patrolling Barça’s sidelines.
Undoubtedly, Benfica will play more conservatively that they normally do, likely playing 4-2-3-1 (with leading scorer Oscar Cardozo out injured) instead of the 4-4-2 they’ve use in league. Still, given the team’s style and personnel, it’s hard to envision them driving a bus onto the pitch of the Estádio da Luz.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Four years ago, when Pep Guardiola replaced Rijkaard, teams tended to play Barça more straight up. The result was a 105-goal season (and a title), though Barcelona lost five times. Since, only Real Madrid has tried to match Barcelona blow-for-blow, an approach that’s only managed to topple the Catalans six times in 120 league matches. Even the 19 draws represent a lower rate than during Guardiola’s first season (when Barça shared points six times). What exactly are the passive tactics accomplishing?
There are three possibilities.
- First, coaches believe it gives their team its best chance to succeed, however limited those odds may be. The numbers may not bear that out, but a coaches don’t always agree with the numbers.
- Second, at least the coach can say he’s trying to contain Barcelona. Playing your normal game against such a talented squad could be perceived as throwing your hands in the air and saying If we’re going to lose, we’re doing it our way. And don’t underestimate a CYA mentality.
- Third, the strategy may be more likely to prevent embarrassment, containing Barcelona’s attack rather than trying to offset it.
The psychological part of that last factor is important. Depending on a team’s state of mind, a coach might view it better in the long term to accept a 1-0 or 2-0 loss rather than risk a disaster while going for a win. For Benfica – a team that won’t have their leading scorer and is still working to adjust to life without Javi García and Axel Witsel – containment may not be the worst option. If Benfica even has it in them.
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Spartak Moscow (Russia) vs. Celtic (Scotland)
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Given Benfica’s midfield transition, Celtic’s home game on matchday one may have been their best chance to get a win from this group. They didn’t take advantage, though they did manage more points (one) than shots on goal (zero).
Conversely, Spartak is coming off their most difficult match of the group, a trip to the Nou Camp where they managed to carry a 2-1 lead into the last 20 minutes. A late Lionel Messi double sent them home empty handed after a 3-2 loss. For Unai Emery’s team, the worst is not only behind them, it gave them something to build on.
It’s unclear why Celtic would have more success against Spartak than Benfica. True, they could just play better, but there are a number of other factors conspiring against them. With Benfica in transition, Spartak may be the better team right now. Celtic’s also making the long trip from Glasgow to Moscow to play on the plastic stuff at Russia’s national stadium.
If Celtic has one thing going for them, it’s an uptick in form, one that started with the Benfica result. On returning to league play, celtic downed Dundee before registering an important 2-0 away win over Motherwell, the biggest threat to Celtic’s title. Based on league results, there’s reason to think the Bhoys will be better than they were two weeks ago.
Spartak, however, will have to slip in order to open the door. The talent gap between the two teams is just too big. With the possible exception of goalkeeper, all of Emery’s starters would displace their Celtic counterparts were they handed a ticket to Glasgow.
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