Why Braga will burst Celtic’s Champions League dream

Celtic v Braga, Champions League qualifier third-round second-leg, August 4, 2010

Celtic 1.78; Draw 3.37; Braga 3.92

“I think we’ve got every chance of getting through on Wednesday. If we get in Braga’s faces and pass well there’s no reason why we can’t get a result with the crowd behind us. I’d love to play in that game. If we attack them and press really high, I think we’ll have no problem. If we get one, we’ll get through and win 4-0 I reckon.” – Gary Hooper.

“I hope there will be 60,000 crazy Celtic fans screaming at them on Wednesday. I think they aren’t used to that kind of atmosphere. If you look at their attendance for the first leg then it was much smaller than what it will be on Wednesday and I think we can ‘put the fire at their shins’, as we say in Holland. They could be our 12th, 13th and 14th man for sure.” – Jos Hooiveld.

***

Reading the above quotes you get the impression that Braga are some pub team from the middle-of-nowhere who somehow managed to play the game of their lives in the first leg to chalk up an unbalanced 3-nil win. It’s as if we’re being asked to believe that Celtic are Goliath and Braga are David.

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Nonsense.

Although last week’s Champions League match was Braga’s first appearance in the competition, the Archbishops have been punching above their weight in the difficult Portuguese Liga Sagres for the past seven seasons (in which they’ve been in the top five every year bar one).

Last term Braga shrugged away the challenge of Porto and Sporting Lisbon to emerge as Portugal’s second force, going toe-to-toe with an impressive Benfica side all the way until the final day of the season in one of Europe’s most captivating title races during 2009/10. Although Domingos Paciencia’s side ultimately came up a little short, failing to claim any silverware, they impressively finished in the top three for the first time in their history.

Over the past few years the minnows from northern Portugal have slowly been getting their act together, particularly on the European stage. Braga successfully qualified for the UEFA Cup/Europa League for the last three successive seasons, gaining experience and confidence year after year.

Chievo, Parma, Red Star Belgrade, Portsmouth, Heerenveen and Standard Liege have all suffered at the Arsenalists in campaigns gone by. Moreover, Bolton, Bayern Munich and PSG have all been held to draws while Tottenham, AC Milan and Wolfsburg chalked up victories by the slenderest one-goal margins. In short, Braga are no European virgins.

Sadly for Celtic, who need to score four goals to progress after their whooping in Portugal, on the pitch Braga’s main strength lies at the back. Last season they conceded just 20 goals all campaign – a statistic made all the more impressive considering that Porto smacked five past them in one match.

That Braga’s backline remains rock-solid is hugely impressive considering their summer activities. A host of new recruits have been signed up this summer, including Nigerian international left-back Uwa Echijile, as well as a trio of Brazilians; centre-backs Eduardo and Leo Fortunato and anchoring midfielder Leandro Salino have all joined up with the squad.

Further forward the bulk of the starting XI is made up of Brazilians who have bounced around a number of Portuguese clubs, such as Alan, Nascimento Matheus and Leandro Salino. Adding extra flavour are Cameroonian forward Albert Meyong Ze and new Senegalese striker Ladji Keita.

All in all, Braga, while unsexy, are a team that works. They may not have the famous names, the famous history or be a team whom many outside Portugal know much about, but if Celtic think they can turn around their 3-nil deficit willy-nilly then they’ll be sorely mistaken.

In contrast to Braga’s rise, Celtic are a team in crisis. Without SPL success for the past two seasons, there has been little sunshine over Parkhead in recent times and there is little to suggest that the good times are just around the corner.

Rookie manager Neil Lennon is definitely up against it. Fresh faces have been added to the first team squad in the form of Cha Du Ri, Joe Ledley, Charlie Mulgrew, Daryl Murphy, Gary Hooper, Biram Kiyal and Efrain Suarez, but the club are still operating on something of a shoestring budget.

On the pitch it’s been a mixed summer for the Scots. Defeated 1-0 by the Philadelphia Union, there was an improved performance against Manchester United in a 3-1 defeat, before a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders. Sporting Lisbon were then seen off on penalties, while last weekend at the Emirates Cup the Bhoys had to concede at least two goals before they started playing as they drew 2-2 with Lyon and lost 3-2 to Arsenal.

If Celtic cannot shore up their defense immediately then their Champions League dreams for this season won’t even make it out the starting blocks. That piles even more pressure on out-of-favour keeper Lukasz Zaluska, with all accounts being that a new custodian is high on the priority list for the Bhoys.

At the other end, despite missing a penalty against the Gunners and reports linking him with a move from the club, Georgios Samaras remains the team’s most potent goal-getter alongside striker Shaun Maloney and Daryl Murphy. Hopes are also high that youngster Ki Sung-Yueng can instantly morph into the new Shunsuke Nakamura, while more creative pressure is heaped on the like of Mark Crosas to really come to the fore this term.

While Celtic may have high hopes that a turnaround is in the offing, on the ground it feels like this will be another tough season for the club. Should Braga arrive in Scotland looking to protect their lead, it’s very hard to see a way back for the Bhoys in this one.

101gg predicts: Celtic 1 – Braga 1

Celtic 1.78; Draw 3.37; Braga 3.92

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