IN THE minutes after Jordi Alba knocked in the winner at the Nou Camp the mind drifted back to something Neil Lennon had said at the Celtic team hotel the day before.
Eulogising the wonders of Barcelona, he made the point that this was a team that never lets up, a team that keeps playing until they hear the last blast of a referee’s whistle no matter what the score might happen to be. Lennon had done his homework. But, then again, he didn’t need to study all that hard.
Last month alone, Barca rescued themselves late in games on three separate occasions on three successive weeks. Against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, they were trailing 2-1 until two Lionel Messi goals in the last 19 minutes saved their skin. Against Granada in La Liga they were drawing 0-0 until Xavi put them ahead in the 87th minute before an own goal in the 90th minute gave them victory. Seven days later, Seville were beating them 2-1 with a minute of normal time to play – and ended up losing 3-2. Barca are all about artistry but underpinning it is a work ethic and a mental strength that is extraordinary.
We see that in so many different ways, but on Tuesday night we saw it in the manner in which they brushed off adversity. They went into the match missing an entire first-choice back four – Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and long-term casualty Eric Abidal – as well as their great defensive midfielder, Sergio Busquets. Then they lost a calamitous opener. None of this shook them out of their stride, though. Even in the 94th minute they were playing with the calmness of a side who knew they were going to score. It was wondrous to see.
Awaiting take-off in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Celtic players sat on the plane on the tarmac at Barcelona airport and wore the jaded look of men who had experienced more than a mere football match in a place the locals love to refer to as more than a football club. Georgios Samaras grimaced. Kelvin Wilson shut his eyes. Scott Brown stared straight ahead as if in some kind of trance. There was a weariness and a silence on that aircraft. Later, Charlie Mulgrew would admit to feeling unprecedented levels of exhaustion, as if he’d played in three games, not one.
This was the slow retreat, departing Barcelona after midnight, arriving in Glasgow after 2.30am, getting to their beds at whatever time and nodding off at God knows what hour. There was a lot to put them to sleep, but even more to keep them awake. Celtic were only seconds away from becoming only the third team in a year to leave the Nou Camp with a result, Real Madrid and Chelsea being the only visitors who have had any joy in the place in the past 12 months.
Lennon called it bittersweet and it was the perfect description of the night. As the days go on, though, the analysis will surely be more about the sweet and less about the bitter. The trip to Catalonia was brief but it was enlightening. In the hours after Alba’s winner the chat was all about what might have been for Celtic. Now it’s more about what could yet be for Lennon and his players. They were defeated but, with an average age barely touching 25 and a place in the knockouts still in their gift, they have much to look forward to as a team.
This coming Monday marks the one year anniversary of Celtic being booed off in front of their own people after a lifeless 0-0 draw against Hibs. October 2011 was a grim month for Lennon, a month in which Celtic dropped seven points in the SPL, a run of failure that had the support severely doubting the merits of the manager. All has changed since then. Lennon has improved immeasurably in the job. He is calmer and more focused, an intelligent coach and a canny tactician with a fantastic eye for a player and a crucial ability to take a player and make him better.
The Celtic boys on that plane from Barcelona looked beaten up but, to a man, they are on the European map now. They are known. A year ago, in the eyes of the Barcelonas of this world, they were nonentities. Irrelevancies in the grand scheme. Not so any more. They have earned the respect of some storied characters in this competition.
Ask Lionel Messi about Fraser Forster and he’ll know full well how good he is. Forster is the Celtic story in microcosm. It doesn’t seem that long ago when there were doubts about him as a goalkeeper, little question marks about his ability to command a back four and be a leader.
The other night he was the leviathan of the Champions League, brilliantly denying Messi in a couple of huge moments in the second half.
Messi was on 299 career goals for Barca and Argentina on Tuesday morning and the fact that he’s still on 299 now is a tribute to Forster’s excellence. Ask Pedro or Alexis Sanchez about Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson and they’ll mention that these guys are tough opponents with hearts the size of buckets. Ambrose, just turned 24 years of age, looks another astute buy to rival that of Forster, Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre and, of course, Victor Wanyama.
Even Xavi and Iniesta, although utterly dominant across the middle of the park, would have to recognise what Wanyama did in the game. Over the years, this pair have seen all sorts of guys trying to apply a wrecking ball to their creativity but not many of them have been 21 years old, as Wanyama still is. There’s surely little doubt now that Wanyama will go on to become an elite player, but where? How long can Celtic hope to keep hold of him?
This is a team that Lennon created, not one he inherited. It’s a rebuild the like of which was performed by his mentor, Martin O’Neill, in the past. The irony of ironies would come if Lennon was to get his team to a place where O’Neill could not. Namely, the last 16 of the Champions League. O’Neill had relative fortunes to spend and couldn’t do it. Lennon has had to work with buttons in comparison and the fact that it’s still a distinct possibility at the halfway mark of the group phase is a sign of how quickly things are progressing on his watch.
In the post-match discussion, Lennon was measured and mature, speaking like a veteran instead of the rookie he still is. He struck a nice balance in the aftermath. He saluted his players, but not too much, for he didn’t want to sound like a guy who was happy in defeat, no matter how great the opposition happened to be. He bemoaned the game’s cruelty but didn’t go overboard there either for he accepted that Barcelona clearly deserved to win, that their patience and brilliance got its reward, even if they had to wait all night to get it.
When Alba scored, the sight of his delirious team-mates mobbing him against the backdrop of a Nou Camp exploding with noise would have been hard to take from a Celtic mind but, in many ways, it was the richest of compliments. The Barca emotion was about relief. For Celtic, the comfort comes in the knowledge that, with three games left in the group, they have it in them to extend their Champions League story that bit further.