Slotting in behind Barça – UEFA Champions League Group G preview

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A Champions League match in Russia means Tuesday will have an early kickoff, though with no points through two rounds, Spartak’s provided little more to the tournament than staggered start times. Their early match against Benfica isn’t technically a must win, but it’s difficult to see how Spartak get out of Group G with a loss.

The game in Moscow is the day’s opening act, with Barcelona-Celtic – Group G’s other match – part of the seven-match slate that kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern.

Spartak Moscow (Russia) vs. Benfica (Portugal)

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, 11:00 a.m. Eastern

Spartak is in a mini-crisis, having lost three matches in a row for the first time since 2009. That may not sound so horrible, but there are a few augmenting factors:

  • Because of the international break, the losing streak means Spartak haven’t won since Sept. 29.
  • Once of the losses was a huge derby match with CSKA Moscow, a match Spartak lost 2-0.
  • Another was an embarrassing Champions League loss to Celtic, the game which looked like Spartak’s most likely victory when tournament groups were drawn.
  • This being Unai Emery’s first season as head coach, an early downturn naturally raises doubts about his fitness for the job.

That’s part of the reason Emery’s labeled Tuesday’s match as “crucial,” though that status has as much to do with tournament implications as it does mounting pressure. Having lost their first two games of the competition, it may be now or never time for Spartak, particularly considering they’re facing Benfica (the team directly above them in the standings). Another home loss and every other Group G team will be (at least) four points ahead of Spartak.

Benfica have their own reasons for urgency, sitting on one point after two rounds. They failed to take advantage of a Celtic team that couldn’t manage a shot on target, and while nobody expected them to win their second match (against Barcelona), they remain without a win or a goal.

Coach Jorge Jesus doesn’t seem concerned. While, like Emery, he conceded the match was very important to Benfica’s chance to finish second (nobody’s even faking a chance of besting Barcelona), Jesus also hinted at a wait-and-see approach. He expects Spartak to play desperately and take chances. He’ll adjust his tactics accordingly.

Read between the lines, and we may again see a Benfica team that’s more concerned with the other team’s attack than their own. While that makes sense for a team on the road in Champions League, at some point Benfica is going to have to be more proactive. If they’re waiting for the right place and time, they could return to Lisbon in fourth in their group.

From Spartak head coach Unai Emery:

“The coaching staff has conducted an internal review and we have an understanding and appreciation of why we have been losing.”

From Benfica head coach Jorge Jesus:

” The game is very important, because there are three teams battling for second place in the group. If we manage to get a good result, then it will be just us and Celtic bidding for that second qualification spot.”

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More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Barcelona (Spain) vs. Celtic (Scotland)

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

Sitting on four points, Celtic is one of the surprises of the tournament, though their results require some explanation if we’re trying to assess the Bhoys’ quality. Celtic had more points than shots on goal after their draw with Benfica in Glasgow, and although they took an early look in Moscow, they needed a dismissal and an own goal to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win. Neil Lennon deserves credit for getting Celtic into a position to compete for the knockout round, but it’s unclear his side is much better than a team picked to finish last in this group.

We’re unlikely to get any clarity on Tuesday. Celtic are huge underdogs to Barcelona, though a loss wouldn’t damage their chances at second place. None of Braga, Celtic, or Spartak expected any points from Barça. Any result they get from the group favorites will be considered a bonus.

For Barcelona, focus will be the primary concern. Though they’re big favorites against Celtic, they can’t take anything for granted, as their matchday one struggles against Spartak showed. Late in the Russians’ visit to Camp Nou, Spartak held a 2-1 lead before a Lionel Messi double lifted Barcelona to victory. Coming off three weekend goals, Messi’s certainly in the right form to replicate that output, but if Barça comes into this match prepared, he won’t need to.

From Barcelona head coach Tito Vilanova:

“Maybe people didn’t take Celtic seriously at the start of the season, but we do … Celtic’s pace and the fact that they have tall players for set pieces are what worry me the most about them.”

From Celtic manager Neil Lennon:

” We’re not here on holiday or for the tourist attractions … We can try to stop balls reaching Messi. Better teams and better coaches than myself have tried to stop him and failed, so we shall see what we can do.”

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More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H