Well the wish expressed by GGW in its post “Celtic’s Champions League opponents – Definitely the last word” of 31st May 2010 came true. Celtic have been drawn against Sporting Braga and in the correct order too, with first leg in Braga on 27/28th July and the second leg at Celtic Park on 3rd/ 4thAugust.
The good news is that Braga will not be as good or strong a team as they were last season, during which they gave Benfica a good run for their money taking the contest for the Portuguese League right down to the last day. Braga impressed with an attractive version of attacking football.
However, since then Braga have lost their international class goalkeeper, Eduardo to Genoa. They have also lost both their first choice full backs, Joao Pereira and Evaldo to Sporting Lisbon. The creative engine of their midfield Hugo Viana was only on loan last season from Valencia while his future has not yet been definitively settled it looks unlikely that he will be returning to Braga.
Braga have replaced the lost players with a whole swathe of signings but this splurge should not cause Celtic any great concern. None of the new intake are of the top class, none of them are international stars like Cha Du Ri or Juarez or even Ledley or Murphy. The best known and most experienced of their signings, goalkeeper Quim from Benfica, has been seriously injured in pre-season training and will definitely not be fit to face Celtic. Of the rest, some are capable defenders like Leo Fortunato from Cruzeiro, George Lucas from Santos and Eduardo from Botafogo, others pedestrian forwards like Lima and Helder Barbosa who between them did not even score 10 goals last season. They have also signed youngsters like the Senegalese forward Ladj Keita and the Nigerian defender Ehiejile and from Villarreal reserves young Spanish forward Jose Collado.
As well as Quim they also have lost midfielder Mossoro through injury for the Celtic ties. With Mossoro injured and Viana gone, their midfield looks much less incisive than last season and the only new recruit, Leandro Salino is unlikely to effectively replace either missing link.
Braga or likely to play a fluid 4:4:2 formation. The key men Lennon’s scouts should watch out for are Brazilian midfielders Alan and Vandinho who will be given more leadership responsibility in Viana’s absence. Main striker Ze Meyong flopped at Levante and while happier back in Portugal he should not cause an organised Celtic defence many problems. It will be difficult to determine exactly what players Braga will select to face Celtic until after their traditional pre-season presentation game on Wednesday 21st July against Athletic Bilbao. GGW will report following that game on the likely Braga line-up for the game on the 27th in Braga.
Braga will be a new face on the Braga bench too. The latest recruit Fernando Couto should be familiar to most Celtic fans as a rugged and slightly mad centre back who won league titles in 3 different countries with Porto, Lazio and Barcelona in a long and successful international career.
Fernando Couto and Lennon have much in common. Couto has no previous managerial experience but his knowledge and experience of European football is greater than Lennon’s. Both men had a long and successful international careers. Both men were seen as falling slightly short of the very top class due to deficiencies in technique and temperament. But both men were widely admired as warriors and as winners. Couto won more than Lennon, winning championship medals in three different countries Portugal, Spain and Italy.
Couto represented Braga at Friday’s UEFA draw and made the right polite noises about what difficult opponents Celtic represented. But he was careful to point out also that Braga would be difficult opponents for Celtic. While there is likely to be some dramatic eyeballing between Couto and Lennon, the two games will not be a tactical contest between them rather one of wills. Braga have a coach, Domingos Pacienca, who masterminded their successes and attractive football last season. He is still in charge of the team selection and tactics. It will surely be a source of wry amusement to Lawwell, Reid, Desmond and others that Fernando Couto has been appointed to the kind of role the Celtic Directors had in mind for Stuart Baxter, that of Football Director. The next two weeks should be an interesting opportunity to see how much benefit such a role brings to Braga and whether Celtic and Lennon will suffer for it not being replicated on their side.
Those Celtic fans who are planning to travel to Braga should enjoy the stadium. It was dynamited out of a hillside rock quarry in time for the 2004 Euro Championships and is a spectacular sight but it has more in common with open-ended Broadwood than enclosed Celtic Park.
GGW will provide a more detailed report on Braga’s likely formation and tactical approach after Wednesday. However even at this point, while Braga will be no mugs, and should not be taken likely, Celtic must be seen as the favourite’s to progress from this tie. Such a victory would guarantee them participation in the Group Stages of at least the Europa League even if they were to subsequently lose in the final Championds League Play-off Round.