FOX Soccer Exclusive
Celtic post brave fight in Barca defeat
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FIXTURES
|Tuesday, October 23|
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Jordi Alba’s 94th minute winner for Barcelona broke Celtic hearts after the Scottish champions had seemed set to claim a famous draw in Wednesday evening’s Champions League Group G clash at the Camp Nou.
After Giorgios Samaras fortunately helped Celtic go in front on 18 minutes, and Andrés Iniesta equalized just on the stroke of half time, Neil Lennon’s young side had held heroically out until the final seconds. But Barca went for broke, threw both full backs forward and one, Adriano Correia, crossed for the other, Alba, to knock the ball to the net from just two yards.
Barca manager Tito Vilanova expressed his relief in the Camp Nou press room after the game, but said the result had been deserved.
“We carried the game to them, we deserved to have won it much earlier,” Vilanova said. “We hit the post, made a lot of chances. At the end if you are not attacking and making chances in front of goal, you do not win.”
Lennon, understandably, held a different view, telling reporters that his young side had not deserved to be hit so late.
“It is a sore one to take obviously,” Lennon said. “The team were magnificent, it is hard to take but I am so proud of the players. We can take a lot from the game. It is a young team, developing very well. Nobody gave us any hope going into this game, but they have won a lot of admirers.”
The action began with reserve center-half Marc Bartra, 21, drafted in by Vilanova for his first start of the season, to deal with Celtic’s significant height advantage. The move was to little avail as Barcelona conceded from the first high ball lofted into their penalty area. Samaras’ header was going nowhere until it hit Javier Mascherano’s shoulder and bounced past wrong-footed goalkeeper Víctor Valdés. Barcelona looked nervous throughout, clearly missing Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué.
By contrast, Celtic’s defense was exceedingly composed with Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama, 21, helping to squeeze the space in which Lionel Messi likes to work. There were even some ‘oles’ from the over 5,000 visiting Scottish fans near the half hour mark as their team kept possession with some impressive passing.
“We were missing a bit of spark in the first half,” Vilanova admitted.
Barcelona do not need more than a crack to score though, and just as it seemed the Glasgow side would enjoy their half time oranges a goal up, some eye of the needle tiki-taka from Messi and Xavi Hernández worked just enough room for Iniesta to swivel and slip a shot inside goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s left-hand post for 1-1.
“Only Barcelona could have scored that goal, they moved the ball so intricately and at pace,” a wistful Lennon said.
Barca’s struggles in the air continued in the second period with Wanyama heading a corner just wide. The game then entered a cat and mouse phase, with neither team coming close to scoring. The lull was filled by home fans' chants for Catalan independence, while the visitors’ anthem ‘The Fields of Athenry’ got a lusty airing around the Camp Nou.
As time ticked away, Celtic began to drop deeper and deeper, and rely more on Forster’s saves. The 24 year old, recently called into the senior England international squad, made three flying stops in quick succession, two from Messi and one from Alexis Sánchez, as Barca took control.
Celtic’s relatively inexperienced players were also showing their wiles – with Scottish under-21 – winger James Forrest and center-forward Gary Hooper getting opponents Javier Mascherano and Adriano Correia booked with exaggerations of contact, bringing disruptions which gave their defensive colleagues a valuable break.
Substitute David Villa came closest with a 15 yard snapshot off the post, but it seemed the visitors had their point to take back to Glasgow. Then, at the last, Alba escaped Forrest's marking to break the hearts of both visiting players and fans.
“We had done more or less everything, we just needed to see out one more attack,” Lennon said. “The top teams go right to the end. Manchester United have done it many times over the years, and Barca did it tonight.”
The win capped Vilanova's first 100 days in charge of the club, which have brought more frights than Barca fans have been used to in recent years, but with his team top of both La Liga and their Champions League group.
“Previously we won games and now we are doing so too, by the minimum and with comebacks,” Vilanova said with a smile. “They said we bored people. Not at the moment.”
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.