Yay! The Premier League International Cup is back. After the phoney war of the opening months of the season and the Champions and Europa League preliminaries, the season has really started. Mark Murphy defined the word intrepid and represented 200% as the football jamboree clicked into gear. “Are you the Celtic fan?” my friend Les was casually asked as four of us constituted the “late rush” to the Wycombe Wanderers turnstiles for “Celtic FC v S.L. Benfica” in this year’s Premier League International Cup (PLIC).
The Aylesbury-based Raith Rovers fan (and surely there’s only one of them) was surprised that ticket sales for the match had been so poor “with there being so many London Celtic fans.” However, he didn’t know what Les and I knew about the Premier League’s previously unheralded ability to keep a secret, with its near-allergy to PLIC publicity. And when the Raith fan noted that “there was only 180 for the Borussia Moenchengladbach game,” we were not a bit surprised.
Anyway, before I overload on “sentences you’ll not have heard before,” here’s a quick recap on the competition, as regular readers may remember a report on Celtic beating Spanish side Villareal 1-0 in last year’s PLIC at Dartford FC in January on the way to a quarter-final exit on penalties against tournament winners Manchester City. It is a sixteen-team under-21 tournament, eight English, eight not, with a hazy entry criteria (presumably invitational, although this is nowhere specified on the relevant EPL website pages) for “elite development teams.”
All games are played in England, including those between mainland European teams (last year Benfica and Germany’s Schalke 04 gave the Dartford public a goalless draw upon which to feast their eyes), at wildly varying venues, of which Wycombe’s Adams Park is neither the smallest nor the quirkiest. There are four groups of four, with the top two qualifying for the quarter-finals. The group games started in August and finish just before Christmas. The knock-out stages will take place…well…after that (the schedule isn’t that weird).
Last year’s competition gave us concepts as exotic as Fulham v PSV Eindhoven at Motspur Park in Surrey, Fulham qualifying for the tournament as a recent EPL team (when I said “hazy entry criteria” I meant it). Norwich also fitted the bill for that reason, although they are now in the competition as an EPL side, while Fulham’s continuing championship incumbency means Motspur Park will have to forgo its place in the sun. PSV are back, alongside the afore-mentioned Villareal, Moenchengladbach, Benfica and Schalke plus Athletic Bilbao, Porto and, of course Celtic. England’s “finest” are City, Norwich, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester, Tottenham and (hence the inverted commas around finest) Sunderland.
Like most underage football competitions, the PLIC permits overage players (three outfield players and the goalkeeper). Having seen Charlie Mulgrew’s tentative first steps on his injury comeback trail in January, I did wonder to myself on the journey through Chelsea fans’ favourite town (Gerrard’s Cross) who would be this game’s “special guest star.” Celtic’s “experimental” 16 for the previous night’s League Cup tie had included teenage centre-back Kieran Tierney and current fringe player Calum McGregor, both of whom I’d hoped to see against Benfica. So I concluded that attitudinally-doubtful Anthony Stokes might be on show.
However, I followed (for once, they cry) the old maxim: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Then I got hold of a team-sheet. “Number nine: Anthony Stokes.” I’ll not get another chance to appear so clever. Benfica were fully worthy two-one winners of a game which was phenomenally good value for the THREE POUNDS admission fee charged at all games in the competition. It can surely only be a matter of time before that price sky-rockets (no pun intended), although the EPL’s oddball reluctance to give the competition due publicity may yet keep things as they are for a bit.
Despite the differing result, however, the game had a similar pattern to the Villareal match. Benfica slick in possession and off-the-ball movement, Celtic determined, good at getting in the way and, when that failed, saved by keeper Leonardo Fasan. Not that Celtic weren’t neat and tidy and occasionally slick in possession themselves. It was just that Benfica made them look intermittently clumsy. The main difference though was that the Adams Park pitch was as slick as the Benfica passing, in contrast to the 100 yards by 80 yards puddle of mud to which Dartford’s pitch had been reduced by the combination of a wet January and two club teams calling Princes Park “home.”
There was another key difference. Against Villareal, Fasan put in the perfect goalkeeping display, eminently fileable under “masterclass.” He allied shot-stopping to a fearsome command of his area, dealing with crosses like picking apples from a tree. Against Benfica, the shot-stopping talents were out in force again, including one world-class save in the second half which had him literally hopping mad at the increasingly porous protection he was receiving from defensive colleagues, a Celtic “trademark” so far this season. On crosses, though, he wasn’t tested. Benfica just didn’t do them, unless they got in behind the Celtic full-backs and cut well-drilled low balls into various danger areas.
For 37 minutes, Celtic coped. Just. Until they were pulled in nineteen different directions by a superb six-man (boy?) move before Diogo Goncalves side-footed home from close range. There was no doubting Benfica deserved their half-time lead. Yet they nearly didn’t have it. A rare defensive lapse allowed Celtic’s best outfield player Aidan Nesbitt a clear forty-yard run on goal. And only his chronic lack of a serviceable right-foot slowed him sufficiently to be denied a shot by a fast-retreating Benfica defender.
One-each at half-time would certainly have surprised the most…erm…’forthright’ member of the Celtic faithful among the 3-400 in attendance. Les wondered aloud what this guy would be like at a big game “if he gets this worked up over a kids’ match.” And we were soon involved in grading the insults he was firing at the mostly young and wholly undeserving souls. Being Glaswegian, his first port of heckling call was “shite.” But perhaps mindful of the youth on show, or (you’d hope) admonished by neighbours in the crowd, he largely eschewed swearing. Instead, Celtic were “terrible,” “shocking” an “embarrassment” and “terrible, terrible”, which we eventually decided was number one on the non-sweary list. Meanwhile, the sum of his tactical advice was for Celtic players to “look for the ball,” as if they were instead admiring the impressive hillside views which surround Adams Park. Indeed, Celtic spent rather more time looking for the ball than actually finding it when Benfica had their best spells of possession.
Midway through the second half, it all became too much. First came a plaintive cry of “come on, Stokes-y, you’re supposed to be good,” which got the biggest laugh of the evening. Then, as Benfica briefly threatened to render events an actual “embarrassment,” an anglicised, sharper, more heartfelt “shit” rent the cooling Buckinghamshire air. He really meant that one. Hopefully by co-incidence, both Stokes and Celtic immediately improved. Stokes looked more of an international footballer when he dropped a little deeper and Nesbitt’s jinking runs started to penetrate a little deeper too, even when he began to cramp up. He only succumbed to it after some minutes’ visible pain. But little wonder he suffered, having made his first-team debut 23 hours earlier and over 300 miles further north in the Raith League Cup tie.
Unfortunately, just before the hour, Celtic full-back Aidan McIlduff had got his feet in a muddle and Oliver Sarkic swept unchallenged towards goal. Fasan was sharp off his line, though, giving Sarkic a mere ball’s width of a gap to find with his shot. Sarkic found it. Two-nil Benfica. Still, Celtic “could have” snatched the unlikeliest of draws. Rare defensive hesitancy gifted Stokes a chance which he turned onto a post. With two minutes remaining, McIlduff fully redeemed himself with a deft left-foot shot to finish off Celtic’s best move of the match. And Stokes nearly made it two-each as the game entered stoppage time when he found space in the box after a neat one-two. However, his touch had been about the worst of the Celtic team all night. And it wasn’t any better here.
There was a competitive edge all evening, although full-blooded tackles were all the more noticeable for their rarity. Stokes showed that he was trying rather than sulking when he tracked back to the centre-circle to get yellow-carded for a challenge midway between “forward’s tackle” and a hack. While Benfica’s Dawidowicz Hawel took a series of partners by the hand in a series of fouls which technically could have earned him two cautions if referee Carl Brook wanted to be clever and didn’t mind the paperwork. And the Benfica fans, including two from Aylesbury, took things seriously enough to set off a couple of bright red flares in a brief pre-match pyrotechnic display. This momentarily panicked the Wycombe stewards until they realised that there would have been a far bigger fire risk from setting off a couple of flared trousers. All this, coupled with a few hearty “Hail, hails” from the Celtic support, made for far more of an atmosphere than there had been in damp Dartford.
There was also something to keep the Gaelic Football fans among Celtic’s support (and maybe the Aylesbury Benficans) occupied with the appearance of one Jim McGuinness in the dug-out among Celtic’s coaching staff. In 2012, McGuiness managed a mid-ranking Donegal Gaelic Football team to only its second-ever All-Ireland title (having played in its first, in 1992) and built a Jose Mourinho-esque reputation for tactical but defensive genius, making his sides less-than-universally popular, initially anyway. However, McGuinness comes across far better in public than Mourinho. And every bit of his tactical know-how was applied to his outstanding punditry work on SKY TV’s otherwise mediocre Gaelic Games coverage. Some of that defensive know-how could be very usefully applied to Celtic’s first team at the moment. But, for now, the kids will reap the benefit.
Given that “it is important not to lose your first game” in four-team groups, this defeat may limit Celtic’s ambitions of making the quarter-finals again. In thorough keeping with the PILC’s off-the-wall timings and venues, Celtic will face Chelsea on Friday December 4th at where else but…Aldershot. And Liverpool, who Celtic play at St Helens on October 28th, will surely more than make up the numbers, despite being bottom of the group after losing 4-2 to the Blues. Nevertheless, a jolly good time was had by all at Wycombe. Even, I suspect, yer man who would love nothing more from life than for Celtic’s young guns to “look for the ball.”
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