SL Benfica’s Ola John and Ezequiel Garay secured a 2-1 win over Celtic on Tuesday that threw the race for the second qualifying spot in Champions League Group G wide open with one round of matches remaining.
The Lisbon club are level on seven points with Celtic, but have a better head-to-head record. If Benfica’s result at already-qualified Barcelona at least matches Celtic’s at home to Spartak Moscow, they will reach the last 16.
Their 20-year-old Liberian-born winger John, signed from Dutch side Twente in the off-season, drilled home the opener after seven minutes, but although Celtic surrendered most of the possession, they were deadly up front.
Striker Giorgos Samaras equalized with the visitors’ first opportunity, towering above the defense to head in from a corner after 32 minutes.
Benfica missed several chances as Celtic hung on for a draw that would have put them through, but their persistence paid off when Argentine Garay volleyed the winner after 71 minutes.
Barcelona had qualified earlier on Tuesday with a 3-0 win at Spartak, who are bottom.
“I’m disappointed with the two goals we conceded,” Celtic manager Neil Lennon told the BBC. “There was a lack of composure, a nervousness, about us at times on the ball.”
John chose the perfect moment to grab his first-ever goal for Benfica.
Celtic were guilty of squandering possession and Argentine winger Eduardo Salvio punished them, surging past two defenders on the right before sending over a cross that eventually fell for John to fire in.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus opted for the tall trio of Nemanja Matic, Luisao and Oscar Cardozo to counteract Celtic’s menace from set pieces, but they were still found wanting.
With their first corner, the Scottish champions equalized just after the half an hour mark, when Samaras was left unmarked at the far post and converted an easy header to the despair of the home fans on a wet evening in Lisbon.
Benfica created chance after chance in the second half, the best when Brazilian striker Lima ghosted past a defender, beat Celtic ’keeper Fraser Forster, but had his shot cleared off the line by Welsh defender Adam Mathews.
Celtic, who earned a memorable 2-1 win against Barcelona two weeks ago, ran out of luck with 20 minutes remaining.