Celic turns Barca clash to slugfest

BY foxsports • October 1, 2013

Every hero has his foe. And likewise, every legendary team seems to have that one opponent that inexplicably gets the better of them each time, even if they are inferior in every way.

When they met in the Barcelona’s Camp Nou last season, Celtic very nearly came away with a draw, deprived only by a 94th-minute Jordi Alba winner. Two weeks later, Celtic went ahead 2-0 and held on after a late Lionel Messi tally for the upset of the year.

So when these sides met again on Tuesday, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the blaugranas couldn’t possibly be surprised a third time. There isn’t a single Celtic outfield player who could make it even onto Barca’s bench, and the Bhoys’ best player last year, Victor Wanyama had moved down to England over the summer. Messi was out with an injury Tuesday, but these were three points were seemingly being offered to Barca on a plate.

And yet, despite the fact that Celtic went down to 10-men with a half hour left to play, Barcelona was fortunate to eke out a 1-0 win.

Celtic once again looked like a team designed to negate Barcelona’s strengths. Because Celtic doesn’t try to run with Barcelona the way Bayern Munich or Real Madrid (the only other teams to have consistently been successful against them) have in the past, they have humbled simply by outpunching them. The Hoops aren’t like racehorses beating them down the home stretch; they’re Clydesdales, strong and sturdy and impossible to beat on strength.

And so, once again, Celtic turned the game into a tussle, rather than a footrace, letting Barcelona run at them but refusing them entry into the heart of their penalty area, where Barca’s success resides. They suppressed Barcelona’s strengths simply by outmuscling them in the areas where they might score. To wit, Barcelona had just one real scoring opportunity in Celtic’s penalty area prior to Cesc Fabregas’s 76th-minute game-winner, and that was rather a difficult chance, made to look better than it was by Neymar.

Save for that moment in the 40th minute when the Brazilian golden boy whipped a sharp Dani Alves cross just wide on the half-volley, Neymar was a disappointment. With Messi injured, the implication was clearly that it was up to Neymar to unlock the burly Scottish defense. The Barcelona system, for all its wondrous movement, is reliant on a lynchpin to deliver the scoring chances. And Neymar, while willing, wasn’t that.

After spending the first 15 minutes running at Barcelona on the counter, yielding a minor chance for the horse-like Giorgios Samaras, Celtic dropped deep into their own half and dedicated themselves to defending. Organized and pinned back almost permanently, the Scots found ways to keep their goal empty, thriving in a perpetual state of brinksmanship. They retained their shape, kept the lines close together and fought like hell. Their objective was destructive more so than constructive.

Barcelona’s dominance on the ball was well reflected by the passing statistics for the first half. The Catalonians completed 372; the Glaswegians 62 -- a ratio of exactly 6-to-1. For when Celtic did get a chance to venture out, the sloppiness of their passing – perhaps they were rusty at it -- prevented real attacking.

Scott Brown was sent off for pulling the runaway Neymar to the ground, and then kicking him, in the 59th minute. Thereafter, Celtic had no choice but to play very physically in order to stem the tide. 

"If there was any contact, it was minimal," said Celtic boss Neil Lennon after the match. "There was a lot more in a game that warranted heavier punishment. It was a game-changing decision. It is obviously very difficult playing Barcelona with 11 players and even more difficult with 10 but we played very well tonight."

Added Lennon: "It's a physical game. I don't think I need to apologize to Neymar, I don't think I need to justify my defending of my captain and I think the sending-off was uncalled for and unnecessary.''

Nevertheless, Celtic almost broke open the scoring in the 73rd minute, when James Forrest lashed his shot at the upper corner, forcing a handsome save from Victor Valdes. On the ensuing corner, Charlie Mulgrew nodded wide on a completely open header.

Ironically, it was on one of Celtic’s few forays into the opposing half that caught them out for the game’s only goal. Barcelona strode forward in a rare counter-punch and found Alexis Sanchez all alone up the right. He pulled his cross back for Fabregas, who could deposit his soft header against the grain and into the netting.

With no blame to bear for that goal, Celtic’s Fraser Foster excelled in the nets, making a threesome of splendid saves on late Neymar and Alexi shots, enabling his side to chase the late equalizer. They never found it though, and so Barcelona held on for the win.

"Certainly playing with 10 men for 35 minutes against Barcelona is something to think about when analyzing the game," added Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino after the victory. Martino was happy with the way his side went forward in the absence of  Messi.

"We obviously prefer to play with Messi but when he is unavailable his absence cannot be used as an excuse," said Martino. "We have some excellent players. This match was the most demanding so far, Victor Valdes made important saves for us."

Scottish football may be in a fetid state, but it can nevertheless claim a series of impressive performances against a team considered one of the greatest of all time. They are foes to the heroes of the sport.

FOXSoccer.com's newswire services contributed to this report.

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