A measure of the magnitude of the occasion was the presence of Cockney touts on the approach roads to Celtic Park last night delivering the conspiratorially-intoned “any spare tickets?” without any takers. Their nefarious ways were not required for the golden ticket handed to Jozo Simunovic.
The Croatian centre-back hasn’t been able to buy an appearance in the Champions League since his £3.5 million transfer from Dinamo Zagreb. His team’s failings under Ronny Deila prevented him from doing so last season. During this campaign the 22-year-old’s own physical frailties have meant Brendan Rodgers has felt unable to play him in midweek while making him a pivot in the club’s weekend domestic games.
Simunovic left Zagreb just as they were set to embark upon Champions League group stage football almost 15 months ago, and has noted – without rancour – that a sacrifice was made in making the switch to Celtic.
Lining up against Barcelona last night must have felt a redemptive moment for Simunovic, who looked set to leave Parkhead at the end of the summer transfer window when he travelled to Italy to sign for Torino only to return when the deal collapsed. Since then, Rodgers and his medical team have built up his fitness carefully to the point where he has played once a week but never in the Champions League. He changed all that by demonstrating he can hold his own against the very best.
On the back of waiting months for his chance he perhaps might have been left feeling it was a case of “careful what you wish for” as he looked a couple of yards in front of him and saw Lionel Messi, then looked to his right and spotted Luis Suarez.
Yet, he bounded forward to throw himself into an early challenge with complete abandon. His ability to match aggression with conviction was a feature of Celtic’s early ability to stand up to the Catalan attack, which also included the slippery Neymar. The Brazilian’s brilliant arced ball brought an equally fine finish from Messi for his opener. In that instance, all Simunovic could do was watch the ball sail over his head.
He, and Celtic, lived on their wits at times and the Champions League first-timer gave as good as he got in this most exacting examination. That included hitting the turf theatrically when tussling with Suarez. An incident that brought the amusing sight of the Uruguayan complaining that an opponent had dived. As the half wound towards its conclusion he was sacked by Neymar when dithering on the ball, but his recovery to make the block was impressive.
Celtic held pretty firm in the second period to ensure Simunovic and his backline partner Erik Sviatchenko both enhanced their reputations.
Fitness permitting, Simunovic’s bow in the Champions League will surely be the first of many appearances at this level.