Football Expert & Columnist
Missing their edge?
Are Celtic ready for their Champions League opener against Benfica? Andy Walker has his doubts...
Last Updated: 17/09/12 12:40pm
On hearing that his men had been drawn against Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow in the group stages of the Champions League, Celtic boss Neil Lennon was convinced that it was a reasonable ambition to qualify for the knockout stages of Europe's premier club competition.
But after watching them lose 2-1 to St Johnstone on Saturday, it is so hard to gauge just how the SPL Champions will cope on Wednesday night when they open their Champions League campaign at Celtic Park against Benfica.
Five league games so far have produced just two wins and having conceded seven goals, Celtic languish fifth in the SPL table. There's no doubt in my mind that the players are missing the edge that a title race with Rangers would give them.
With the Ibrox men banished to the fourth tier of Scottish football, I believe it's already showing in Celtic's performances that they miss the cut and thrust of a genuine title challenge.
Too many of Lennon's players have lacked the correct attitude and application for the initial league games and it's a big gamble to suddenly cope with the demands that Benfica will bring.
Of course the Portuguese will miss Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia, sold for a combined £50million to Zenit St Petersburg and Manchester City in the summer transfer window but there's still enough experience for manager Jorge Jesus to call upon.
Remember, this is a side that drew at Old Trafford last season and know how to cope with a big tie. But having said that, I would never write Celtic off at home in the Champions League.
In recent years, AC Milan and Manchester Utd have left with nothing and with the eyes of Europe on them, the Celtic supporters are sure to put on an impressive show.
I doubt it will intimidate the stars of Benfica but the extraordinary atmosphere will surely put an extra yard on the stride of Neil Lennon's men.
The biggest concern for the Hoops manager will be wondering who he can trust in such a testing environment.
Defensively, Charlie Mulgrew and Kelvin Wilson were exposed on Saturday and didn't get a great deal of help from Emilio Izaguirre.
Lennon may well be tempted to give a debut to 23-year-old Nigerian Efe Ambrose if the central defender receives a work permit in time. Clearly it would be a gamble but a partnership of Ambrose and Wilson would allow Mulgrew to play left back at the expense of a strangely subdued Izaguirre.
Up front, Venezuelan forward Miku failed to impress against St Johnstone and his partnership with Gary Hooper needs time to gel.
Lennon, of course, has the option of a different type of striker in 6ft 2in French-born Tunisian internationalist Lassad Nouioui. He replaced Miku at the weekend but is another who needs time to settle.
Although Tony Watt looks sharp every time I see him play, it would be too much to ask of the 18-year-old to lead the line against Benfica.
In Scotland, we've recently witnessed our World Cup campaign get off to a stuttering and stumbling start and it tells a story about our prospects for qualification.
Similarly, if Lennon's ambition of finishing in the top two of such a demanding group is to be realised, then three points at home against the second seeds in the group is crucial in order for those chances to be realistic.