On a night when Celtic had hoped lightning might strike twice, it was instead a double by Lionel Messi which formally ended their hopes of further progress in this season’s Champions League.
There was no repeat of their famous 2012 scalping of Barcelona for the Scottish champions whose spirited efforts were insufficient to resist the brilliance of Messi. The Argentinian wizard, who plundered a hat-trick in Barca’s 7-0 drubbing of Brendan Rodgers’ side at the start of the Group C campaign, did the damage again with a sublime opener midway through the first half and a penalty after the break.
The Scottish champions at least restored a level of self respect against their illustrious visitors who had to work much harder this time for the victory which guides them safely into the last 16 of the tournament.
Celtic can no longer even garner the consolation of relocation to the Europa League, as the 1-1 draw between Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City in Germany condemned them to finish bottom of the group regardless of how they fare in their final fixture away to the English side on 6 December.
Until Messi conjured up a typically incisive contribution to give Barcelona the single goal advantage they enjoyed at the break, there had been no shortage of encouragement for the home support in their team’s approach to last night’s contest. There was an element of back to basics by Rodgers as he looked to avoid the kind of passivity which marked the mauling experienced in the Nou Camp two months earlier when he had deployed a three-man central defence.
It was a traditional back four this time, with Jozo Simunovic making his Champions League debut at the heart of it, with Callum McGregor’s inclusion on the right of midfield in preference to James Forrest another nod to a more pragmatic strategy.
Having committed just three fouls all night when Barcelona rang rings around them on that chastening matchday one, Celtic were determined to make their presence felt on their own path, as evidenced when captain Scott Brown left a calling card on Sergio Busquets in the opening minutes.
The hosts started on the front foot, pressing high up the pitch, and Scott Sinclair saw a positive run into the penalty area crowded out by Gerard Pique. It was enough to raise the noise levels inside Celtic Park which were maintained when Sinclair latched on to a fine pass from Emilio Izaguirre and whipped over a cross which Javier Mascherano had to scramble away under pressure from Moussa Dembele.
But there was an inevitability about the gradual increase in possession seized by Barcelona. The first warning sign for the home defence came when they were wrong-footed by Messi’s brilliant crossfield pass to Neymar. The ball was returned to Messi whose deflected shot prompted a potentially calamitous mix-up between Craig Gordon and Erik Sviatchenko before the danger was eventually cleared.
Sinclair appeared unfortunate to be pulled up for offside when he raced clear on to a superb through pass from Brown, but Celtic were generally finding it increasingly more difficult to hold on to the ball.
Messi might have done better than scuff a shot wide from around 12 yards after a slick move involving Neymar and Jordi Alba, then Ivan Rakitic was too deliberate with a good headed chance which he sent wide of Gordon’s right-hand post.
It was almost as if Barcelona had suddenly sensed the breakthrough was there for the taking and it duly arrived in the 24th minute. Sviatchenko was booked for a foul on Messi and, from the free-kick, the visitors patiently worked the ball from one side of the Celtic penalty area to another.
Neymar picked it up on the left and lofted a cute pass over the Celtic defence into the path of Messi whose firm and precise left-foot shot from around eight yards beat Gordon at the goalkeeper’s near post.
On an evening when the strong feeling was that Celtic would need to score first to have any realistic prospect of victory, it was a sharp blow for Rodgers’ men who took some time to regain any impetus.
They did force Marc-Andre ter Stegen into his first save of the match nine minutes before half-time when the Barcelona keeper gathered a Dembele shot fairly comfortably. The degree of difficulty was far greater at the other end for Gordon when he made a stunning save to keep out Luis Suarez’s close-range header from a Messi cross.
Celtic were forced into a change at the start of the second half, James Forrest replacing Sinclair, who sustained a painful injury when fouled by Alba just before the break. The substitute played his part in a brighter spell for the home side which should have culminated in an equaliser in the 53rd minute.
Forrest delivered an inviting cross from the right which left Dembele with a free header just outside the six-yard box. But the French striker, who failed to convert a penalty when the score was just 1-0 in the away fixture, could only direct a tame effort straight at ter Stegen.
That missed opportunity was punished to the full when Barcelona doubled their lead from the spot two minutes later. Izaguirre was incensed by the decision but the left-back was caught the wrong side of Suarez before grappling with the forward who needed little encouragement to go down. Messi, completely unfazed by Celtic’s protests, calmly sent Gordon the wrong way with the penalty.
Messi and Suarez both missed glaring chances to underline Barcelona’s superiority in the closing stages and Celtic would have heard the final whistle with an element of relief.