Lightning did not strike twice against Barcelona last night but this was another brave performance from Celtic, who were undone by a rash moment from Scott Brown.
Scorer: Barcelona - Fabregas (75)
The home team had to play over half an hour with ten men against a side who are without peer when it comes to exploiting space.
Brown kicked out at Neymar in the 58th minute and was given a straight red card by French referee Stephane Lannoy. Cesc Fabregas headed the winning goal in the 76th minute, shortly after substitute James Forrest had come close to giving Celtic the lead with a half volley that was well saved by Victor Valdes.
Virgil van Dijk then placed a free header just past the post from the subsequent corner. Handed some hope by the absence of the injured Lionel Messi, Celtic looked equipped to take something from the game until Brown’s departure. As expected, Neymar was the central figure. However, Brown’s rashness was a major factor in an engrossing Champions League Group H fixture at Parkhead.
Barcelona were given the usual rousing welcome by Celtic. Cheers turned to jeers for Neymar, who was involved in the 58th minute flashpoint that left Celtic with ten men. However, it was notable that the home fans provided the endlessly immaculate Iniesta with a loud and sporting ovation when he was substituted in the dying minutes, which the midfielder looked to appreciate. Brown, though, was the villain in some of the Celtic supporters’ eyes after an unnecessary red card that helped Barcelona make the breakthrough on what was beginning to look like it might be a frustrating night for the visitors.
Brown first nudged Neymar off the ball as the mercurial Brazilian took off again down the left wing. It was a fly kick at Neymar that sealed his fate however, with the referee having appeared ready to only book the skipper.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon was as adventurous as he felt he could be, fielding Anthony Stokes in support of Georgios Samaras. As expected, however, it was the defence who took the strain last night, and Efe Ambrose and Van Dijk held strong in the face of the movable feast that is the Barcelona forward line.
Match winner Fabregas started in the false nine position but he could just as likely be seen collecting the ball from the centre halves in his own half. If so, Iniesta would step into the breach while Neymar lingered dangerously on the left wing, just waiting for the moment to wreak havoc. Indeed, right back Mikael Lustig was given an immediate taste of the wily player’s talents when, in the opening minute, he was shown a clean pair of heels by the Brazilian.
The 21 year old could not make the impact on the game that he will have hoped in the first half, although he did come closest to opening the scoring in the first half when he flicked a Dani Alves just past the post.
Celtic ran into too many cul de sacs but were always vigilant in defence. Fraser Forster did well to tip a Xavi free kick round the post on the stroke of half time after Lustig had once again been tested by Neymar, who he had fouled at the cost of a booking. The Celtic support grew agitated as Lannoy persistently penalised the home team for innocuous challenges on several occasions in the first half – although he did elect not to book Ambrose when the defender made a reckless tackle on Sergio Busquets after he had lost the ball in a dangerous position in midfield.
But when he resisted the urge to make such sorties up the park, Ambrose formed an able defensive partnership with Van Dijk. It was in this centre half position that many felt would be Celtic’s main area of weakness but this was a showing that made it harder to understand why Lennon had elected to play Van Dijk and Steven Mouyokolo in the play-off match in Khazakstan. Celtic survived to tell the tale after that tie and nights such as this one are the reward.
It seemed hard to credit that Barcelona could look as accomplished without the injured Messi, but they were every bit as comfortable in possession and were content to spread the ball around until an opening presented itself.
Manager Gerardo Martino cuts a less stylish figure than his predecessors Tito Vilanova and Pep Guardiola. However, he has helped maintain a slick passing style that Barcelona are renowned for. Surprisingly given the amount of talent on view, they were without a cutting edge until Fabregas’ 76th minute winner.
Celtic, for their part, lacked a Victor Wanyama-type figure in midfield. The Kenyan gave Celtic the lead in the 2-1 win last season and could impose himself in a way that Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew struggled to do last night. Their difficulties in this department grew even more pronounced after Brown’s departure. However, Lennon was quick to make some alterations and sent on Beram Kayal and James Forrest for Lustig and Stokes. And minutes later Celtic almost took the lead when Forrest brought the ball down smartly before hitting a half volley towards the top corner. Valdes, however, was the equal to it and tipped the ball over. Van Dijk then headed Celtic’s best chance past the post when Commons’ corner found him unmarked on the edge of the six yard box and with Valdes completely at sea.
Like Forrest, a substitute for Barcelona made a quick impact. Just a minute after replacing Pedro Rodriguez striker Alexis Sanchez crossed to the back post where Fabregas sent a header back across Forster and into the corner of the net for the 76th minute winner. The keeper excelled himself when preventing Barcelona going two ahead with three minutes remaining saving twice from Alexis in quick succession. Rather than another famous night at Parkhead, this was a case of what could have been.
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