ANOTHER year, another Barcelona road show. The Spanish giants arrived in Glasgow yesterday and while they might be missing their headline act, Cesc Fabregas made sure no-one was in any doubt about the potential of the player expected to be the visitors’ main danger man against Celtic this evening.
Neymar, signed in the summer from Santos for nearly £50 million, already requires little introduction given his exploits for Brazil, as well as his performances so far for Barcelona. Rested in the win over Almeria on Saturday, he looked particularly keen to get on the ball last night, as the Barcelona side trained amid the relative peace of the empty stands at Celtic Park.
At least, that was the case down on the pitch, before 60,000 fans are packed into a stadium that Fabregas last night stressed was among the great venues in European football.
Prior to training, and in a restaurant that had been temporarily turned into an enormous press room high up in a stand, the battalion-sized press corps charged with reporting on all matters Barcelona asked several questions stemming from the same central issue: can Barcelona cope without Lionel Messi?
Fabregas, who is expected to occupy the ‘false 9’ position in Messi’s absence, patiently explained that while Messi, who injured a thigh at the weekend, will be an obvious loss, they are well covered. In Neymar, of course, they have someone else who can unpick a defence, and who is more than capable of providing a virtuoso, match-winning display.
According to Fabregas, the 21-year-old can be anything he wants to be in world football. He views him as one of the greats-in-waiting.
“He’s very quick in a short space, he has the skills to get away very easily,” he said. “I think he’s a star in the making. He’s already a star but what I mean by star in the making is that this boy will have a lot to say in the future of football.
“It’s all up to him. Everything is in his hands. He came here to learn, as he said. He came here to compete, to fight, to grow up as a player and a person.
“He’s still a boy. But I think, in the future, we will be talking of him as one of the greatest.”
Fabregas acknowledged the difficulties presented without Messi. “It’s a test for us without Messi because we always want him in our team,” he said. “We rely a lot on him because he’s the best player, he scores the most goals and is always there for us in attack.
“He is the best but when he is not there we have to try to adapt the situation. All the strikers – myself, Neymar, Pedro, Alexis – have to step up. We have to focus on doing the job of strikers – scoring goals and providing assists.
“This is one of the first times we have played without Leo this season and we have to make sure his absence is not noticed.”
There are not many places where Barcelona have to contemplate the notion of revenge. But this is the case at Parkhead, after last season’s shock defeat to Celtic in the same Champions League group stage. Fabregas came on as a second-half substitute on that occasion, while he also played at Celtic Park when Arsenal were the visitors for a Champions League qualifying clash in 2009.
“Maybe we have learned from last year, because of the experience we had,” pondered Fabregas. “But I remember that Barcelona played here a few years back in the knockout stage and it was difficult then.
“If you follow European football and the Champions League, you know that coming to Celtic Park is always going to be tough. Wherever they are in the table, however they are physically, whatever manager they have, it’s going to be tough.
“I played here with Arsenal as well, and that was tough. Any team coming here has to expect a difficult game, because of the fans but not only because of this.
“The crowd put on so much pressure, they are always behind the team, they respond to a corner almost as if it’s a goal. That’s pressure.
“But I think we can deal with it. We’ve played big games in our careers, I’m sure this will be another one, we just have to cope with it.”
Atletico Madrid, who defeated Real Madrid in the Bernabeu on Saturday evening, were evoked on two occasions last night. New Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino compared Celtic to Atletico, who he said had also tested Barcelona with a “long ball” game earlier this season in the Spanish Super Cup.
Fabregas, meanwhile, compared Celtic manager Neil Lennon to Atletico’s Diego Simeone, an energetic touchline presence who has masterminded their excellent start to the season.
“I remember him as a player and he was just the same as I see him on the bench,” said Fabregas, when asked for his thoughts on Lennon.
“To me, he is the Scottish version of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid,” he added. “They are both similar style of coaches in that they give energy and confidence to their players.
“They are standing up all of the time, they are putting pressure on referees, they are doing their job to the maximum and I admire that because football is all about passion.
“He gives a lot to that and he transmits all of it to his players,” he added. “You can see that he has done that very successfully, so we know that if we want to win, we will have to match that ambition, fight and commitment.”