ON AN evening when they celebrated 125 years of history, Celtic secured a breathtaking victory which stands comparison with any of the myriad famous results recorded in their storied existence.
Celtic: Wanyama, 21; Watt, 83
Barcelona: Messi, 90
The last 16 of the Champions League is now tantalisingly in reach of Neil Lennon and his players after a remarkable display of defensive discipline, indomitable spirit and glorious opportunism saw them overcome a Barcelona team widely regarded as one of the finest football has ever seen.
This was a night of utter triumph for Lennon as he established himself as a Celtic manager of considerable stature. Any of his illustrious predecessors in the role would have been proud of a precious win earned by goals from Victor Wanyama and prodigious substitute Tony Watt.
Lionel Messi’s stoppage-time goal for Barcelona ensured a nerve-wracking end to an
endlessly absorbing contest for the home fans, but there was to be no late salvage job for the Catalan superstars.
Celtic savoured their greatest ever Champions League win, one which leaves them in second place in Group G.
They will travel to Lisbon in a fortnight fuelled by belief
they can achieve a result against Benfica which could secure their passage to the knockout stages.
The Champions League has provided the stiffest possible examination of Lennon’s burgeoning coaching acumen and circumstances forced him to try and find a fresh solution to the unique problems presented by Barcelona.
He was not found wanting as he pieced together a team selection and strategy which succeeded in giving the Scottish champions a platform from which to try and plunder a positive result from their exalted visitors.
The loss of captain Scott Brown to a viral complaint on the morning of the game was a significant blow for Lennon, already without a trio of key personnel in the shape of Emilio Izaguirre, James Forrest and Gary Hooper.
But Georgios Samaras did pass a fitness test, returning in a floating role behind Nicolas “Miku” Fedor who was preferred to teenager Watt for the central striking role. With Charlie Mulgrew deployed in Samaras’ favoured wide left position, Celtic set out a fluid 4-4-1-1 formation which regularly came to resemble a 6-3-1 when they were forced on to the back foot by Barcelona’s relentless and almost hypnotic brand of ball retention.
The Uefa statistics relayed on to the giant Parkhead screens told of some 85 per cent possession for the Spanish League leaders, but it yielded nothing for them in the first half but the 1-0 interval deficit which had a fevered home support daring to dream of a momentous
Wanyama’s 21st-minute goal was a masterclass in opportunism from Celtic as they took full advantage of their first significant raid into Barcelona territory. The visitors’ vulnerability at set-pieces was exposed when Efe Ambrose’s long throw-in was only cleared back out to the Nigerian, who forced a corner on the right. Mulgrew whipped it over with pace and precision, finding the towering figure of Wanyama at the far post, rising above Jordi Alba to send a close- range header beyond Victor Valdes into the roof of the net.
It was a case of deja vu for Celtic, having also gone ahead in the Nou Camp two weeks earlier, and the challenge now was to try and write a different script than the one which unfolded that night.
Barcelona had passed up a couple of decent chances to take the lead themselves before Wanyama scored, Alexis Sanchez forcing Fraser Forster into his first save of the night after just six minutes with a close-range shot before Lionel Messi scooped an effort over the top as he got on the end of one especially mesmerising passage of play.
There was no hint of panic from Barcelona after they went behind, as they continued to trust in their ability to carve open Celtic’s diligent defence, but there were a few signs of frustration that the end product continued to elude them.
Remarkably, Celtic might even have doubled their lead in the 27th minute when Adam Matthews burst forward from left-back on a counter-attack and struck his low cross just
too far in front of the unmarked Samaras in the penalty area.
The procession towards Forster’s goal quickly resumed, but Messi’s radar remained slightly askew when he latched on to Andres Iniesta’s rapier pass and clipped the top of the crossbar with his shot.
Celtic were pinned back, but utterly resolute. They also needed fortune to favour them, of course, and it did so again when Sanchez beat Forster with a header from Dani Alves’ cross only to see the ball strike the big goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
Unlike at the Nou Camp, the concentration levels of Lennon’s players remained sufficiently keen to avoid the loss of a late first-half equaliser on this occasion and the interval whistle was greeted with a mixture of glee and gratitude from their fans.
The pattern remained much the same in the second-half, although Barcelona’s hogging of possession was not quite so pronounced as Celtic managed to fashion some encouraging counter-attacking situations which hinted at the possibility of strengthening their position.
Messi was generally being subdued effectively, most notably by the outstanding Matthews, but the Argentinian maestro did cause a sharp intake of breath around the stands when he cut inside from the right and curled in a shot which Forster got across smartly to his right to hold.
The volume increased once more when Celtic forced their second corner of the night, this time opting for a training ground routine as Kris Commons played it short to Mulgrew from the left. Mulgrew’s lofted ball into the box found Mikael Lustig, but his looping header was easily gathered by Valdes.
As Barcelona tried to heighten the tempo, Forster became a more significantly influential figure for Celtic. The big Englishman made a smart double save to deny Alexis, then bettered that contribution with a tremendous reaction stop to keep out a fierce Messi drive.
The visitors were fortunate not to be reduced to ten men when Alex Song, booked in the first-half for a foul on Fedor, somehow escaped a second yellow card for a thumping challenge from behind on the same player. Barcelona coach Vilanova recognised the let-off, almost immediately replacing Song with Cesc Fabregas.
Lennon was forced into his first change when Lustig limped off to be replaced by Watt,
and the 18-year-old took Celtic into dreamland with his stunning goal seven minutes from time.
A long clearance from
Forster was misjudged by Xavi, allowing Watt to sprint clear into the penalty area and beat Valdes with a brilliantly cool right-foot finish from around
Celtic and their fans could not relax, Messi finally breaking their resistance in stoppage time when he tapped in from close range after Forster blocked Pedro’s shot, but this was an evening when Lennon and
his men simply would not be denied.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Watt 71), Ambrose, Wilson, Matthews; Commons, Wanyama, Ledley, Mulgrew; Samaras (Kayal 79); Fedor. Subs not used: Zaluska, McCourt, Herron, Fraser, McGeouch.
Barcelona: Valdes, Alves, Bartra (Pique 71), Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Song (Fabregas 71), Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Sanchez (Villa 65). Subs not used: Pinto, Dos Santos, Montoya, Tello.