NEIL Lennon was left with twin feelings of pride and anger in the wake of a heart-stopping night in Barcelona, a night when Celtic came within seconds of pulling off a stunning result at the Nou Camp, a result that would not only have silenced this great stadium but sent shockwaves throughout European football.
After a monumental defensive effort and some individual performances that were as
heroically dogged as any we have seen from a Scottish team for quite some time, Celtic were undone by a Jordi Alba goal four minutes into added time.
“It’s a sore one to take,” said the Celtic manager. “It’s bittersweet.”
Barcelona had a bewildering amount of possession, 73 per cent in all. They had 26 shots on goal to Celtic’s four, 13 shots on target to Celtic’s two. They had 15 corners whereas Celtic had one and the wonderful Fraser Forster had eight saves to make.
Down the other end, apart from the effort that beat him, Victor Valdes had precious little to do. These were some of the statistics of the night, but the only one that counted for anything was the goals tally and that went against Celtic in the cruellest way possible.
All that defiance only to be undone when the finishing line was firmly in sight. It was a
brutal way to lose.
“The team was magnificent,” said Lennon. “It’s hard to take losing in that manner, but I’m so proud. It’s a huge shot in the arm for the club and for football in Scotland. The boys are hurting and there’s anger or whatever you want to call it, but they got a taste of football at the highest level here. They did fantastically well. They accepted that Barcelona would have so much of the possession on the night and they never panicked.
“We knew that we were up against a different animal to what we’re used to. Playing at this level is hard, it’s tough.
“People say it must be fantastic going to the Nou Camp, but it’s not when you’re standing at ground level and you’re having to go to work against a team as good as this. We were brave. We had 30 seconds left and we couldn’t see it through. But we’ll take a lot from it.”
The night was a surreal one. Celtic had begun the game at an outrageously long price with the bookmakers. No-hopers, in other words. Barca were considered the greatest certainty of
all time but, when Georgios Samaras put Celtic ahead with a little assistance from Javier Mascherano’s back, the Nou Camp was stunned.
Barca levelled through Andres Iniesta’s delicious goal just before the half-time break and won it when Alba got himself away from James Forrest to tap in Adriano’s cross. Lennon said he never thought at any stage that Celtic were out of the woods, not even when David Villa hit a post late on.
“You’re never comfortable. The very top teams play right until the end and that’s what
you saw here again. They’re fantastically fit guys. Only Barcelona could have scored that first goal.
“The pace and the way they picked us off, only Barcelona could have done it.
“We’re a young and vibrant side and we’re developing very, very well. I think we would have surprised people with the way we played.
“ I think we won a lot of admirers around the country. It’s a mixture of emotions. I’m disappointed and angry that we didn’t see it through. But there’s no recriminations and no major criticism. There was a lot of pride and a lot of quality out there. While we got nothing from the game, psychologically
I’m sure we’ll get a huge lift from it. I think people are beginning to sit and take notice of us now.
“I’m just angry at the circumstances. We need to see out one more attack. Look, on the balance of the game, Barcelona deserved to win, I understand that.
“Beforehand, people might have thought this was going to be a walkover but it was far from it. I’m very proud, but I don’t like losing. I’ll digest it all in the next couple of days.
“We can take a lot of satisfaction from what happened but I don’t want the team getting carried away and thinking we’ve turned a corner.”
On a draining night there was comfort for Lennon and his team with the news that
Spartak Moscow had beaten Benfica earlier in the evening, a result that leaves Celtic still sitting in second spot in the group regardless of their loss last night. Lennon and his players made a slow retreat from Barcelona, beaten but unbowed.