Before Cesc Fabregas nursed his header across Fraser Forster and into the corner of the net, Celtic could have been forgiven for daring to dream that another small footballing miracle was going to drop out of the east end sky and into the lap of Neil Lennon’s team.
There they were, 0-0 in goals and 10-11 in personnel, the fire and brimstone of Scott Brown’s performance eventually reaching spontaneous combustion with an idiotic kick at Neymar and a deserved red card. Their captain was gone. Their sight of the ball minimal. Their task as big as anything they have faced in the Champions League.
Shortly after Brown made his ignominious exit, Celtic enjoyed their best few moments of the evening. From the depths, they found something. James Forrest, on as a substitute, fired in a shot from close range only to see it palmed away brilliantly by Victor Valdes. From the corner, Valdes was caught in two minds – to come or not to come.
Charlie Mulgrew rose above Adriano, but put his header wide. For a split second, Lennon thought it had dropped inside the post instead of outside. In the context of the game, it was a seismic moment. Mulgrew looked aghast – and you could understand why. This was the chance they were waiting for and they missed it. It was redolent of Victor Wanyama a year ago. Back post, clear sight of the ball, the goal gaping, a golden opportunity. Wanyama scored to put Celtic on their way. Mulgrew couldn’t do the same. Soon after, they paid the price for the miss – and the red card. From a brief few seconds when Forrest and Mulgrew tempted the Parkhead masses into believing the most improbable result might be a possibility to the grim reality that it wasn’t.
Fabregas scored in the Brown-less minutes. Neymar and Alexis Sanchez and Neymar again came close to a second, denied only by Forster’s brilliance. Nobody can predict these things but many would be prepared to bet the house on Celtic getting a draw from this game had Brown not lost his head. It’s not the first time that the Celtic captain has crossed the line in Europe this season, but it was the first time it was made to pay for it.
Barcelona were not intimidating tonight and this was no high-wire act by Celtic. Their goal was not under siege. There was no woodwork struck. No moments of genius unrewarded. Hardly any last-ditch tackling. The player who did them most damage was not Cesc Fabregas or Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta. It was one of their own. It was Brown. A kick at Neymar may as well have been a kick to the solar plexus of every Celtic fan – here, there, everywhere. Brown had been a Rottweiler all night. Growling and sniping and doing much to deny
Barcelona time and space. He was a huge force for good for so long. The red card undid it all. Imagine facing this team with all its schemers and being done in by the actions of your own captain with 32 minutes left to play? Needless and painful.
Afterwards, Lennon spoke of an “unwarranted” red for Brown, that it was “very soft”, that “if there was any contact with Neymar then it was minimal.” The Celtic manager conceded that Brown fouled the Brazilian in the first instance but that the “tap” as he called it did not justify a sending-off. “Neymar doesn’t do himself any favours with the way he behaves sometimes.” Lennon had to speak up for Brown. Had to. Doesn’t mean that he’s right, though.
Celtic have a mountain to climb now to achieve anything in this Champions League group. They huffed and puffed but only managed to create a few things, when Brown had done the damage and those left behind were trying to pick up the pieces.
For Barcelona, Marc Bartra came into the heart of the back four and, if that meant some hope for Celtic, it was a lukewarm hope for alongside him, as minders, Bartra had Gerard Pique and Dani Alves and Adriano. You could write a weighty book about what those three have won in the game. The World Cup, the European championship, the Champions Leagues, the Uefa Cups, the Spanish leagues and cups, the Copa Americas, the Confederations Cups and the great number of international caps. No one is going to forget what kind of behemoth Celtic faced tonight. And no one is going to forget how painfully close they came to getting something from the game.
Messi’s absence was, of course, profound. You can replace some players. Most players, in fact. There are fewer than a handful of irreplaceable footballers in the world and Messi is number one on the list. Even with Fabregas playing the Messi role – or occupying the same space as Messi would have done at any rate – Barcelona were a diminished force. Fabregas had Neymar outside him and Xavi and Iniesta behind him. That is a sublime amalgam of world class but, without Messi, they were all possession and no penetration until Celtic were down to 10 men. This was 75 minutes minutes of Barcelona foreplay. Lots of cuddling and canoodling and no, er, end product until Fabregas got down to business.
Messi’s absence was hardly the only thing that ailed Barcelona. The quality of Celtic’s organisation and concentration and controlled aggression – until Brown lost it, that is – was hugely impressive. In possession – the bit they had – they weren’t good enough to win, but their stubbornness looked good enough to get them a draw.
This was the kind of dead-eye focus that saw them victorious a year ago against the Spaniards. It helped that Barcelona had so few ideas on the night, but the lack of guile was a by-product of Celtic’s alertness to danger and commitment in shutting down space and getting in Barca’s faces.
For 75 minutes – some of them with a numerical disadvantage – Celtic looked pretty at ease with Barcelona’s threat. Forster was not having to make the heroic saves he made last year. At the back, Efe Ambrose and Virgil van Dijk stood like giants. It went horribly wrong when Brown departed and Celtic failed to put away their big chance.
In that moment, Mulgrew held his head in his hands with a groaning stadium as a backdrop. The groans would grow louder soon enough. Undone, then. Not by greatness, but by the daft petulance of the man who should be their leader.
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