The best line from Barcelona’s pre-match media conference at Celtic Park last night didn’t come for the Catalan club’s manager Luis Enrique or Rafinha, the player placed in front of the cameras. It was provided by a Spanish journalist who anticipated “the return of the tridente” in Glasgow’s east end for tomorrow’s Champions League game.
The tridente just happen to be Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. With them, as Celtic discovered in the 7-0 horsing in the Nou Camp in September, Barcelona are irresistible. Without them, as Malaga proved in repelling the Catalans without the ill Messi and suspended Suarez at the Nou Camp at the weekend, Barca can be resistible.
That scoreless draw – the club’s first scoring blank at home in the league since February 2015 – framed the questioning unfavourably. With Barcelona having lost before they dished out that beating to Celtic two months ago, currently lying second to Real Madrid and having lost 3-1 away to Manchester City, this is being presented as Barca’s worst start to a season in a decade. It’s the sort of stat that should bring discomfort to those of a Celtic disposition because it means they will be fully motivated to dish out a defeat and secure their qualification from Group C.
Enrique seemed discomfited by the questioning that inevitably included a demand for a health update on vomit-bug victim Messi. “Lionel is always ready to play and I’m sure he will be ready to face Celtic. He is 100 per cent and eager to give the best version of himself,” said the Barca manager, who said it was his “hope” that Gerard Pique would play despite “a small foot injury” he sustained against Malaga.
Enrique seemed unsettled by being asked his thoughts on the reports that Messi could be tempted from the Nou Camp with a £200m bid from a City managed by his former manager Pep Guardiola. “I don’t know. I have no idea,” he said. Maybe the contract talks with arguably the greatest player of all time aren’t progressing as Barca would like.
The 29-year-old record goalscorer for the Catalan club can fillet any side but hasn’t always found the ambience at Celtic Park – that he and his team-mates have spoken of with genuine wonder and affection – to have sparked him to his best. He did score but ended on the losing side in 2012, his last appearance at the ground. The Argentine filled his boots with a hat-trick in the recent 7-0 cuffing, with the other members of the tridente requiring to settle for doubles. Enrique stressed that he expects to see the Brendan Rodgers side that fought out a thrilling 3-3 draw with Manchester City, not the one that endured calamity in Catalonia earlier this season.
“It’s going to be a different game than the Nou Camp,” he said. “What happened in September is not a reference to what will happen in Glasgow. Celtic have changed their style since then. We have to be ready for everything from Celtic – high pressure or low pressure. But it’s going to be a different story altogether from the last time. It’s always good to score early and Celtic need points, so they will come out. But I believe it won’t be anything like the last time.
“I haven’t used any of the images of the game in the Camp Nou [in our pre-match preparations] – because it won’t be like that. It will possibly resemble the game Celtic played against Man City more. They will try to play the game in the same way they did that night.” It doesn’t happen often, but tomorrow night Celtic supporters will be praying the manager of the opposing team got his pre-match prediction right.