CELTIC were forced to take a painful dose of their own medicine last night as their Champions League campaign ended in humbling ignominy.
Scorers: Barcelona - Piqué (7), Pedro (39), Neymar (44, 48, 58) Tello (72); Celtic - Samaras (88)
Neil Lennon’s team, whose unchallenged domestic dominance has just seen them dish out 7-0 and 5-0 thrashings to Hearts and Motherwell, were cruelly reminded of their place in the greater scheme of things as they suffered a record-equalling European defeat.
The Scottish champions were completely outclassed by a rampant Barcelona side whose Brazilian prodigy Neymar capped a magnificent individual display with a hat-trick. The 6-1 drubbing matches the margin of defeat Celtic sustained in their infamous 5-0 loss to Artmedia Bratislava in 2005.
Celtic’s final tally of three points in Group H is their lowest ever in a Champions League group stage, the challenge posed by Barcelona, Milan and Ajax way beyond the capabilities of Lennon’s side.
It could easily have been even worse for Celtic last night, Barca spurning a host of other chances, before Georgios Samaras plundered a late consolation for the visitors.
Lennon had spoken on the eve of the match of the need to get “legs” into his team, reasoning that high levels of energy and workrate would be crucial to Celtic’s prospects of limiting the effectiveness of Barcelona during the inevitably lengthy periods of possession the Catalans would command.
There were a few surprising selections in Lennon’s starting line-up, with top scorer Kris Commons and fellow regulars Charlie Mulgrew, as well as Anthony Stokes, having to begin the evening on the substitutes’ bench.
Adam Matthews, fit again after surgery on a collarbone injury which had kept him out of Celtic’s previous ten games, was deployed at left-back in the absence of the suspended Emilio Izaguirre. Captain Scott Brown and Israeli international Nir Biton, both available once more after serving their Uefa bans, were included in an unusual midfield configuration set out by their manager.
Brown was in an advanced position, in support of central striker Teemu Pukki, while Derk Boerrigter and Georgios Samaras were in wider roles either side of Biton and Joe Ledley.
But there was little opportunity for Celtic to try to make the system work for them further up the pitch as their tendency to give the ball away cheaply ensured they were firmly on the back foot from the opening exchanges.
Even before Pique’s early opener for Barcelona, there were a couple of ominously alarming moments for Celtic in their own penalty area. They were perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty in the second minute, Mikael Lustig nudging Neymar in the back as the pair challenged for a Xavi Hernandez cross. The Brazilian’s typical exaggeration in falling to the turf possibly influenced the Russian referee’s decision to turn down the home side’s appeal.
Matthews then betrayed signs of his lack of match sharpness, the Welshman carelessly losing possession just outside the
penalty area. Neymar seized on the error, surging into the box and feeding a pass to Xavi who was crowded out by the alert Virgil van Dijk.
Celtic’s Dutch defender was forced to complete another piece of last-ditch repair work when his superb tackle prevented Neymar converting from close range after great build-up play by Pedro Rodriguez.
But Barcelona finally claimed the goal their early pressure merited. Alexis Sanchez, whose intelligent movement and link-up work with Pedro and Neymar was a constant source of torment to Celtic, stretched the visitors’ defence with a piercing surge. His shot from around 14 yards was deflected off Efe Ambrose and then parried by Fraser Forster. The ball broke into the path of Pique, who knocked it home.
As Barcelona hungrily searched for more goals, Neymar saw a shot blocked by Ambrose after more great work by Sanchez, then the hosts had another penalty claim rightly rejected when Matthews slid in to dispossess Sanchez.
Celtic worked hard to try to subdue a Barcelona side which was clearly in the mood to finish off their group stage campaign in ebullient and convincing fashion. Until the burst of two goals in four minutes just before half-time, it looked as if Lennon’s men might keep the scoreline manageable. They even managed their first serious attempt at goal when Biton’s well-struck long-range shot was blocked by Javier Mascherano.
But Celtic were undone by Barcelona’s ruthlessly effective finish to the first half. They made it 2-0 in the 40th minute, the increasingly influential Neymar gliding beyond Ambrose on the right and cutting the ball back to provide Pedro with a simple tap-in from six yards.
Brown was booked for dissent in the aftermath of the goal, apparently claiming Celtic should have been awarded a free kick in the build-up.
There could be no complaints about the exquisitely created goal which put Barcelona in complete command a minute before the interval. Sanchez befuddled the Celtic defence with a gloriously intuitive lofted pass to find Martin Montoya on the right of the penalty area. The foraging full-back swept the ball across the six-yard box to present Neymar with the easiest chance he could wish for to score his first Champions League goal for Barcelona.
Lennon introduced Mulgrew for Pukki at the start of the second half in an effort to bring greater solidity to his side. But the damage limitation exercise had no time to bed in as Barcelona made it 4-0 just three minutes after the restart.
It was another sublime goal, Sergi Roberto and Neymar linking up initially before the latter’s backheel set up a one-two with Xavi. Receiving the return pass, Neymar moved into the penalty area and drove a left-foot shot high beyond Forster into the corner of the net.
Celtic simply could not cope with the speed of thought and movement which coursed through Barcelona’s play.
There was an air of inevitability about Neymar completing his hat-trick which he duly did in the 65th minute. Played in by his compatriot Adriano, he left Ambrose looking foolish with some delightful footwork before beating Forster with a low shot which Matthews, on the line, was unable to keep out.
It was becoming excruciating to watch for Lennon and his coaching staff and the nightmare continued when Barcelona made it 6-0 seven minutes later.
Substitute Cristian Tello collected a pass from Adriano and his shot deflected off the unfortunate van Dijk beyond Forster into the roof of the net.
Celtic managed to avoid further concession and at least got off the mark with three minutes remaining, Samaras heading home a Mulgrew free kick.
Barcelona: Pinto, Montoya, Mascherano, Pique, Adriano, Roberto, Busquets (Song 73), Xavi, Sanchez (Tello 63), Neymar (Dongou 81), Pedro. Subs not used: Olazabal, Puyol, Alba, Iniesta.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Matthews (Stokes 82), Boerrigter, Biton (Commons 69), Ledley, Samaras, Brown, Pukki (Mulgrew 46). Subs not used: Zaluska, Balde, Atajic, Fisher.