CELTIC saw their hopes of the Champions League stars aligning in their favour against Barcelona for a second successive year undone as they slipped to the bottom of Group H.
Scorer: Barcelona - Fabregas (75)
Cesc Fabregas scored the only goal 15 minutes from the end of a match which lacked the pulsating drama of last season’s Parkhead clash between the teams but was hugely absorbing nonetheless. On the overall balance of play, Barcelona clearly merited the win which avenged their 2-1 defeat last November but they were given a needless helping hand by Celtic captain Scott Brown.
By the time Fabregas beat the outstanding Fraser Forster, Neil Lennon’s side were playing with ten men after Brown was sent off for a foolish kick at Neymar. It undermined a team display full of courage and laced with opportunistic enterprise by the Scottish champions whose exceptional work ethic had looked fairly likely to be rewarded by a point.
As it is, a share of the spoils between Ajax and AC Milan in Amsterdam leaves Celtic as the only pointless team in the group after two rounds of fixtures, with huge significance now attached to their forthcoming double-header with the Dutch champions.
Lennon had stressed the importance of his players being alive to the turbo-charged openings to a game which are Barcelona’s trademark and he would not have been disappointed by the manner in which the visitors were subdued.
While the Spanish champions predictably monopolised possession from kick-off, with Celtic barely getting a single touch of the ball for the first few minutes, there was a defensive composure and tactical diligence by the home side which successfully blunted their opponents in the attacking third of the pitch.
Mikael Lustig and Adam Matthews doubled up on Neymar whenever the Brazilian prodigy tried to threaten down the left, just a small part of what Lennon had described as the “cute game management” Celtic would need to take anything from the match.
When Barcelona did manage to find some penetration around the Celtic penalty area for the first time, Virgil van Dijk showed good awareness to deny Andres Iniesta a clear sight of goal.
With James Forrest having to settle for a place on the bench, there was room for both Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras in Celtic’s starting line-up. While Samaras initially lined up in the central striking role, with Stokes just behind him and Kris Commons on the left, the trio inter-changed frequently as Celtic tried to find gaps in the Barcelona defence whenever they managed to get into advanced positions.
The signs were reasonably encouraging as it was Celtic who posted the first efforts on target of the night as they looked to maximise their return from counter-attacking options. Stokes neatly played Samaras in on the left-hand side of the penalty area, the Greek international’s shot from a tight angle smothered by the advancing Victor Valdes.
Commons then worked enough space to unload a shot from 20 yards but it was blocked by Sergio Busquets’ lunging block before it could test Valdes. A couple of superbly delivered set-pieces by Charlie Mulgrew also offered promise for Celtic, only for the French referee to penalise them for infringements inside the six-yard box.
As ever, there was no hint of frustration from Barcelona as their slick passing football brought no immediate return. They continued to move the ball around with rhythm and precision, content to be patient in their pursuit of openings.
Fabregas, operating in the central attacking role in Lionel Messi’s absence, saw a shot blocked by Efe Ambrose, then Neymar drilled a low effort narrowly wide of Forster’s right-hand post. Celtic were more than happy to restrict Barcelona to long-range attempts, Iniesta firing the next one just over.
But there was increasing anxiety for the Celtic defence in the closing moments of the first half as Barcelona closed it firmly on the front foot. Dani Alves had been reasonably quiet down the right but the Brazilian wing-back suddenly burst into action, sending over a cross which his compatriot Neymar flicked inches wide of Forster’s left-hand post from around 12 yards.
The Celtic ’keeper was forced into his first save of the night in the 44th minute. Lustig mis-timed a challenge on Neymar, earning the first booking of the night. Barcelona captain Xavi Hernandez whipped in the free kick from the left, the ball narrowly evading the head of Gerard Pique in the six-yard area. Forster showed great reactions to divert it behind.
The half-time whistle was greeted with applause by Lennon as he made his way down the tunnel, justifiably satisfied with his team’s efforts thus far.
Celtic were not content to simply adopt containing tactics, albeit circumstances dictated that was what was required of them for most of the evening. They raised the decibel level inside the stadium at the start of the second half with a couple of well-worked attacking moves, Brown firing wildly over from the best of them.
When Fabregas produced a tantrum in response to his booking for a foul on Stokes, it seemed Barcelona may just be in danger of losing their poise for once. But before Celtic could try and really rattle them, their strategy was dramatically altered by Brown’s dismissal.
At first glance, his straight red card for fouling Neymar appeared harsh. It was a clear infringement, halting the Brazilian who had surged down the left as Barcelona countered a Celtic attack at lightning pace. Brown had not denied Neymar an obvious goalscoring opportunity, but he did petulantly flick out a boot at Neymar on the ground to give the referee good reason to send him packing.
Lennon made a double substitution as he looked to reshape his side, Forrest and Beram Kayal replacing Lustig and Stokes. There was so nearly a stunning impact from Forrest who found space to fire in a rising left-foot shot from 18 yards which Valdes, diving to his right, brilliantly diverted behind.
From the corner kick, Celtic came agonisingly close once more to snatching the lead as Mulgrew headed inches wide of Valdes’ left-hand post from a fine Commons delivery.
It proved a pivotal moment as Barcelona went in front with their next attack. Alexis Sanchez, who had just replaced Pedro, received a pass from Neymar and made ground down the right. His cross cut out Forster and left Fabregas with a simple headed finish from close range at the far post.
In the closing stages, only the brilliance of Forster prevented Celtic suffering a heavier defeat. He made a stunning double save to deny Neymar and Sanchez, then in stoppage time pulled off another magnificent stop to keep out Neymar once more.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Forrest 69), Van Dijk, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Matthews, Brown, Mulgrew, Samaras, Commons (Pukki 86), Stokes (Kayal 70). Subs not used: Zaluska, Biton, Balde, Rogic.
Barcelona: Valdes, Dani Alves, Pique, Bartra, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta (Song 89), Fabregas (Tello 78), Pedro (Alexis 75), Neymar. Subs not used: Pinto, Montoya, Jonathan, Sergi Roberto.
REACTION FROM CELTIC PARK