IT ALWAYS seemed likely that Neymar would be the influential figure in last night’s Group H fixture between Celtic and Barcelona but, according to Neil Lennon, the Brazilian’s contribution was not one he could be proud of.
The £48 million winger was deemed to be the danger man in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi and he certainly made an impression in the 58th-minute incident that saw Scott Brown red carded. The Celtic manager noted that the reaction of the home fans to Neymar told its own story. While Andres Iniesta was given a rousing ovation when he was replaced in the dying minutes, Neymar’s every touch was jeered following the clash with Brown.
Unsurprisingly, Celtic found holding on to the 0-0 scoreline beyond them. Cesc Fabregas scored the winning goal with a well-placed header after 76 minutes to leave the Scottish side sitting at the bottom of Group H, after Ajax and AC Milan shared a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam last night.
Celtic came closest to scoring when they had ten men, substitute James Forrest bringing a flying save from Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Charlie Mulgrew then headed just wide from the subsequent corner.
“I think Charlie should have scored,” lamented Lennon, who noted that Fabregas’s winner came shortly afterwards. “My initial reaction was that it was in. But it flashed by the post. It was a great opportunity, and you don’t get many. I am not apportioning any blame to Charlie, because he still had to get above Adriano. But yes, it was a great opportunity, and the game hinged on those five minutes.”
The pivotal moment of the night, however, came just before the hour mark when Celtic skipper Brown was sent off after what the referee judged was a kick at Neymar, who he had already brought down as the player rushed down the left wing. The young Brazilian heard the disapproval of the Celtic fans as he rolled around the turf – and his every subsequent touch was booed.
“I don’t think Neymar does himself any favours with the way he behaves sometimes,” said Lennon, of the mercurial winger. “Our supporters are very respectful of great players – Iniesta walks off tonight to a standing ovation. Neymar after the incident is booed every time he touches the ball.”
Lennon was involved in a frank exchange of views with a Spanish journalist, who wondered whether the manager would consider apologising for his views on Neymar. “Why would I apologise?” asked Lennon. “I don’t think the initial tackle was a severe one. It is a physical game. I don’t think I have to apologise to Neymar. And I don’t think I have to justify the defending of my captain, I thought the sending off was uncalled for and unnecessary.”
“I think it is very soft. If there was any contact then it was minimal. I think there was a lot more going on in the game that warranted heavier punishment – it was a game-changing decision. Obviously it is difficult playing against Barcelona with eleven men but with ten it is even more difficult.”
Lennon was asked if it could be argued that Brown had been foolish to put himself in the position where the referee could send him off. The official had looked set to book him before Brown nudged a boot into Neymar, who reacted theatrically.
“That’s a debatable point,” replied Lennon. “There’s no question it is a foul, and I think the referee was going to book Scott. But then the tap, if you want to call it that, is it violent play, is it dangerous play? I am not so sure. There were a lot of heavy challenges going on out there in the game. It is a very intense level, Champions League football. But is it a sending off? Not in my view.”
“I thought our shape was good, we restricted Barcelona to few chances before the sending off. And, for the first 20-25 minutes of the second half, I thought we were comfortable. We had two fantastic chances – the Valdes save [from Forrest] was amazing. And, two minutes later, we get punished.”
Alerted to Lennon’s criticisms of Neymar, Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino said: “No comment”.
“I could not see with certainty what happened in that situation. I do not want to give an opinion and be judged on that.”
Martino was happy to have left Celtic Park with all three points, given that his team was deprived of Messi’s services. He said: “Obviously we prefer to play with Messi but, when he is not available, his absence cannot be used as an excuse.”
“Playing for 35 minutes with only ten men is something you have to have in mind when analysing the game,” Martino added, before offering Celtic further consolation by describing last night’s game as the hardest Barcelona had played this season.