Celtic will have to wait until the last game of the Champions League group stages to try to secure qualification to the Champions League knock out rounds as they were beaten 2-1 in Lisbon by Benfica.
Benfica took an early lead through Ola John, before Georgios Samaras headed home a Charlie Mulgrew header to equalise for Celtic. In the second half, Celtic were pegged back as Benfica looked for a winner, which eventually came through Ezequiel Garay, who drilled a volley past Fraser Forster to deservedly win the tie.
Despite being defeated on the night, Celtic can still secure qualification if they better the Benfica result. Celtic play host to Spartak Moscow, while Benfica travel to the Nou Camp to try to secure an unlikely result against the group leaders.
Even from the first minute, Celtic were given a warning of the threat that Benfica posed as Samaras was robbed of possession inside his own half, which gave Oscar Cardozo a sight of goal however his shot was well off target.
While Celtic escaped that lapse in concentration, they were soon to be punished for another. Adam Matthews miskicked his clearance and was latched onto by Salvio who fired the ball into the six yard box for Cardozo to lay it off to John, who fired the ball low past Forster.
That goal spurred Benfica on to try to find a second as they dominated possession, but they could not find a way through the Celtic defence.
On the half hour mark, Celtic nearly gifted Benfica that all important second goal as Salvio latched onto a short pass from Kelvin Wilson before shrugging off the advances of Victor Wanyama to tee up Cardozo, but the striker hit the side netting.
Celtic made Benfica pay for the miss as with their first attempt on goal, Neil Lennon’s side equalised. Charlie Mulgrew swung in a deep corner kick and Samaras – unmarked at the back post – nodded into an empty net from a yard out.
Despite conceding, Benfica pressed forward pegging Celtic back once again and just before the break Cardozo, Lima and Salvio all combined to set up John, but the quick reactions and outstretched leg of Fraser Forster denied the Benfica goalscorer from getting a second.
Into the second half and Benfica continued to show their dominance in the game. Lima who was just playing behind Cardozo up front, continued to find a way through the Celtic defence and after leaving Efe Ambrose in his wake on the left hand side of the box, he beat Fraser Forster in the Celtic goal, but Adam Matthews was on hand to clear the ball off the line making up for his earlier gaffe.
Lima against threatened the Celtic goal soon after, but Forster comfortably saved his shot and the best chance of the match fell to Salvio in the six yard box but he could not stretch enough to poke in a ball that had been fired across the face of the Celtic goal.
Despite those missed chances, Benfica finally got the second goal they deserved. Luisao – fresh from his extending ban after smacking a referee – headed the ball into the path of his defensive partner, Garay, who powered a shot past Forster from eight yards out.
Celtic almost snatched a dramatic equaliser through Victor Wanyama, but Artur managed to turn the Kenyan midfielder’s effort away from danger. The save was actually the start of another Benfica attack which ended with Celtic’s crossbar being rattled by Salvio from 30 yards out.
With seconds remaining on the clock, substitute Tony Watt picked the ball up outside of the Benfica box on the right flank and fired a powerful drive along the face of the Benfica goal inches from the big toe of Gary Hooper, who if he had connected, would almost have certainly hit the back of the net and got an unlikely and arguably unwarranted equaliser.
So with Benfica securing all three points, they leapfrogged Celtic into second place ahead of the final matches in the group. Benfica will have it tough in the Nou Camp as Barcelona are expected to see off their Portuguese visitors with relative ease. While Celtic will have a tough test against Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park and will have to do without both Scott Brown and Victor Wanyama, through injury and suspension respectively.
For Celtic there is still a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, as the knockout round is still achievable. Even if Celtic fail to better Benfica’s result on matchday six, they still have European football after Christmas thanks to Barcelona. With Barca’s 3-0 win over Spartak Moscow earlier on Tuesday, that signalled Celtic will finish at least in third spot in the group.
But for Celtic fans, the Champions League is the dream and at this moment in time the dream is still alive.