Tom English: Nowhere else on earth Celtic would rather be
ALL CREDIT to Pythagoras and his revolutionary thinking about right-angled triangles, but if history’s greatest mathematician was knocking about today, he’d be bamboozled by Lionel Messi. Nothing surer.
He’d be scratching his big boffin head like the rest of us. Theorems can be explained, but sometimes the feats of Messi cannot.
Neil Lennon didn’t have the statistics at his fingertips yesterday when he was saluting the wonders of the Argentine, but then he didn’t need them. He didn’t need to hear that Messi has scored 71 goals in 54 games in 2012 and needs just five more to break the all-time 12-month record set by Pele at Santos in 1959. Lennon wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Messi is just one strike away from his 300th goal for club and country, that he has scored nine hat-tricks in the last 10 months and 21 trebles during a career that has seen him finish top scorer in the Champions League in each of the last four seasons. Lennon knows better than most that Messi is not just a man for the here and now, he is a player we will talk about forever, a talent that will be spoken of long after we all shuffle off this mortal coil. The greatest ever at 25. That’s how Lennon describes him. Not many would argue with the Celtic manager.
“It was funny watching him the other night,” said Lennon, when casting his mind back to Barcelona’s 5-4 victory over Deportivo at the weekend, a win that included – yawn – yet another Messi hat-trick. “He basically made the two centre-halves redundant. He just walks around as the ball is being popped about and lets everyone else deal with it. Then, all of a sudden, boom! He comes alive. He just has that burst of pace to get away from people and cause problems. One minute he looks as if he’s not interested, the next thing he’ll drop a shoulder and he’s away.”
Let’s indulge in fantasy here. Say Messi takes a tumble down the stairs of his hotel this morning. Nothing serious, mind. A sore ankle. A bruised knee. Something – anything – that will keep him out of tonight’s Champions League match. What would Barcelona lose in his absence?
“It would take a huge amount of goals out of their team,” said Lennon, who, to be fair, wasn’t exactly getting carried away with the idea given the heavy artillery Barcelona have in reserve in case of emergencies. “He’s a phenomenal goalscorer with a huge amount of assists as well. If you lose him you probably lose, in my opinion, the greatest player ever. You can argue about that all you want. But from what I’ve seen over the past six or seven years he has everything you could ask for.
“Take his goals (against Deportivo); left foot, right foot, left foot. And he hit the post with a 30-yard free-kick. The guy can do everything. Himself, Xavi and Iniesta blow out the whole ‘you have to be tall, teutonic, athletic’ argument. This Barcelona team is two or three gears better than anything I have seen before. I watched them the other night and they were fabulous. People say they have defensive problems but I’m not so sure. Deportivo’s goals were a penalty, an own goal and two from corners. They were either set plays or a freak of nature. I don’t recall Victor Valdes having many saves to make during the match but Barcelona could have scored six or seven.”
Celtic will need a series of unlikely events to happen if they are going to get any joy. They’ll need unimaginable heroics from their defence, they’ll need Scott Brown to be fit enough to play and his partnership with Victor Wanyama to be as solid as a rock, they’ll need Messi to be Mr Magoo for once in his life, they’ll need Xavi and Iniesta and Villa to have an off-night and if all that happens they might have a chance. Might.
“You can talk about them all night and how you would go about stopping them but they come at you in such a variety of ways that it’s near enough impossible,” said Lennon.
The Celtic manager knows what it is like to face these guys – or some of these guys. In 2004 he faced Xavi in the Champions League. “He was impossible to play against. It didn’t matter to him, even if we were pressing, he could take the ball anywhere and manipulate it so well. He’s still doing it now. They’re just brilliant footballers. They’re so intelligent. They’re strong, believe it or not, they’re brave, they cover the ground quickly, they are just the ultimate team at the moment.
“When I played against them it was in the pre-Messi days. Xavi was already in the side but he was young and Iniesta was on the cusp of the squad. Since then, those three have been the key instruments in why they have been so successful. Put those three in any team and I suspect they would turn them into world beaters.
“The challenge facing my team is bigger than it was back then. But we have plenty of international experience in the group. Yes, this is a huge step up and no matter what experience we can pass on to them, it won’t replicate what they are about to experience for themselves. It’s a big pitch, a different atmosphere from what they are used to at Celtic Park, the pace of the game, the movement, the quality of the passing, the quickness of the playing surface. They will just have to adapt it to it all as quickly as possible. I’m going to need a couple of heroes.”
Pressure, then. But the right kind of pressure. The pressure of being precisely where he wants to be, at the very heart of European football with a team that has done itself proud in their two games to date. “I feel pressure anyway,” said Lennon. “I feel pressure to try and get something out of the game, I feel pressure to represent the club at European level and there will be a lot of people back home anticipating a really exciting night. You carry that with you.”
Unfancied teams have come to the Nou Camp and have done fine. You think of Spartak who only lost 3-2 in week one of this Champions League and Rubin Kazan who left town with a 2-1 victory in 2009. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened.
“Yeah, that does give us a bit of hope but we have to play very well, we have to be disciplined, we have to defend, there could be a lot of last-ditch stuff, I’ll probably need my goalkeeper to play well, we’ll have to defend set-pieces well, we’ll just have to be on our mettle from minute one to minute 93 or 94. Because when you think you are getting a bit comfortable in the game, that’s when they’ll hurt you. They can score at any time from any area of the pitch.”
“This is the ultimate challenge. We’re not going to have the ball. We’re not going to be able to play through them. We’re going to have to have an out-ball at some stage which is why Samaras is going to be important. Samaras will be very important because of his physical attributes as well as the football he brings to the team. We look a big side at times, and that’s maybe one department where we can maybe affect Barcelona, particularly at set-pieces, but our delivery has to be right. And you hope we get a f****** set-piece in the game.”
It will be a long, long night, but the certainty of the evening is that no matter how it goes there is nowhere else on earth that this Celtic team would rather be.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west