Braga 3-0 up but not definitely through

Greengreenworld made a classic mathematician’s error in its last post “Celtic to get Braga-ing rights”. It concentrated on a thorough examination of one side of an equation while making only a sloppy assumption about the other side. Even after last Wednesday’s performance against Celtic which resulted in that 3-0 win, GGW sticks with its conclusion that Braga are not as good a team as they were last season. GGW is confident they will not finish in the Top 3 of the Portuguese League this coming season and would happily take bets on that topic from any Celtic supporter who feels otherwise. Braga are a decent, well-organised team who play to a defined pattern and work hard to implement the instructions of their top class coach. But they have no top class players, they lack creative inspiration and they have no natural goalscorers upfront. If they qualify for the Playoff Round of the Champions League none of the seeded teams will fear being drawn against them. In assuming Celtic should prevail against them, GGW made certain assumptions. One was that the Celtic of this new season would be a better team than the Celtic of last season. GGW assumed that this improvement in one side coupled with the deterioration in the other, would tip the balance of what last season would have been a tie that Braga might have been expected to win, into a situation where Celtic would be seen a s the more likely to prevail. Part of this expectation was based on the assumption that Celtic’s close season recruitment was of a significantly better quality than Braga’s. Cha Du-Ri , Efrain Juarez, Joe Ledley and Daryl Murphy have much more class and international experience than Leandro Salino, Rodrigo Lima, Elderson and Helder Barbosa. Indeed Elderson, a Nigerian, is the only one with any international experience. Another assumption made was that Celtic’s quality of pre-match friendly games was against sufficiently better opposition than Braga’s had been. Teams like Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon and two match fit MLS sides Philidelphia and Seattle were all better than Athletic Bilbao the only serious opposition faced by Braga. But the most important assumptions were that new manager Lennon would have worked out that he had the better side and send his team out mentally and physically prepared and organised to prove their superiority, and that they would work harder than the Portuguese to get the kind of result their superiority warranted.

But on the night, Braga not Celtic triumphed and to the tune of a 3 goal margin which leaves them clear favourites to be the club that progresses to the Play-off Round. So what went wrong on the night to invalidate these GGW assumptions? The first problem was that Lennon gave them too much respect. He set out his team with only one man upfront, in a 4:5:1 formation. That is the way Walter Smith’s Rangers team tackle away games against better teams, like Werder Bremen and Fiorentina, hoping for lucky breaks. It is not the way Celtic teams prove their superiority. This negative defensive formation gave Braga an immediate indication that Celtic had not come to win but to survive. Barcelona and Inter Milan showed last season that it is possible to go to away games play three forwards up front and prosper. The other two semi-finalists Bayern Munich and Lyon never played less than 2 forwards away from home. Braga’s estimate of the respective strengths of the two clubs was revealed by their own starting formation. They initially lined up with the same 4:5:1 a s Celtic, something different from their normal 4:4:2 come 4:3:3. But the aggressive attacking Braga were expecting from Celtic never materialised and they were able to be more adventurous themselves than they had planned to be, with Paulo Cesar playing as a forward and Alan pushing up behind him. Everyone who managed to watch the game knows that Celtic hardly managed a single attack the whole game and only really threatened in the last minutes when Daryl Murphy came off the bench to make it 2 forwards up front. Celtic seemed alarmingly content to be only one goal down for 50 minutes and didn’t fight to reverse that position. If marks were given for industry and endeavour the Braga scores would have been much higher than the Celtic ones.

Will start as a forward, but will revert to midfield if Celtic do well

One of the beauties of football is that every match is unique. If matches were replayed immediately few would have exactly the same score and many would even have a different result. Although it is of course impossible to know, if Lennon had shown Braga less respect and sent out a team geared to put pressure on them with two forwards upfront, does anyone really believe they would have lost 3-0 or worse? And surely they would have had more than a derisory single shot on target. Playing more forwards doesn’t automatically guarantee more goals. Indeed the reverse is often the case. However when you overestimate opponents and play defensively against them you diminish your chances of obtaining a good result. At least there will be no alternative on Wednesday but to opt for an offensive formation. So how likely is it that Celtic can justify the belief that they are the bigger club with the better players? The Braga players who will start against Celtic have not played since the game against Celtic. The reserves had a run-out at the weekend winning 3-0 against Al Sharjah but none of that team will be in the initial line-up, where the one change might be Matheus who scored that late goal possibly replacing the poor Lima up front. Paulo Cesar has survived an injury scare and will start up front on the left. If things get tight he will be pulled back into midfield. Celtic have had two games in 2 days scoring 4 goals against clubs of the quality of Lyon and Arsenal. At this stage of the season Celtic’s hectic schedule might actually turn out to be a blessing to them. Losing 5 goals in 2 days is not good but given the likely nature of Wednesday’s game the defence are unlikely to face sustained pressure. If Celtic had lost 2-0 rather than 3-0 last week then the task facing them might not be seen as so daunting. Yet it means only one more goal required over 90 minutes. Braga are well-organised defensively with midfielders Vandinho and Madrid fully committed to supporting their defence. With Alan capable of surging forward quickly and striking the ball hard, Celtic will need to keep their defensive wits about them. Yet scoring 3 goals should not be beyond them. That should be their target rather than seeking 4. Braga have this past week been remembering that Celtic have in the past put 5 goals past Sporting Lisbon and 3 past Benfica. Paciencia the Braga coach has been very careful to avoid complacency and stress that the tie still has to be won. Before the first leg the bookies were offering 5-6 against Celtic qualifying(and the same odds for Braga). Since the first leg Celtic fans with faith have been able to get 12-1 against their team making the next round draw on Friday. GGW sticks with its view that Celtic have by far the better group of players. With no alternative but to go for it the negativity that cost Celtic so dear in the first leg should not be a problem. Braga deserve to be favourites to qualify but 5-1 or 6-1 would seem more realistic odds, making the 12-1 on offer a Value For Money bet. If Celtic keep calm, believe in themselves, work their socks off and get a bit of luck then perhaps they can yet allow their better player resources to prevail. It will be little consolation to Celtic fans but one other team with a great European tradition will also be struggling to make the next round. Ajax Amsterdam were moving to one of those 1-0 home wins when you are all over the opposition but spurn many chances to bury them, when PAOK Salonica got a fluky equaliser. With the away goal in their favour a 0-0 draw at home in the second leg would see them through. However do not rule Ajax out yet, they have the better players and in Luis Suarez a forward well capable of scoring away from home.