Celtic v Barcelona: No easing off for Vilanova in ‘most important game of year’

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FOR the most part, the dutiful responses offered at Barcelona’s media conference ahead of their Champions League encounter at Celtic Park tonight provided all the enlightenment of the Dark Ages.

Inadvertently, however, the Catalan club’s manager Tito Vilanova let slip an admission that could be read as a gloomy portent for Celtic’s future prospects in Group G, beyond their hosting of his team this evening.

Vilanova described the game in Glasgow as “the most important [we] have left in the year”. The reasoning being that a win would put them on 12 points and probably out of reach of all three of their group opponents. That outcome could be a double whammy for Neil Lennon’s side, because of what the Barcelona manager said could then ensue in the ties in Moscow and at home to Benfica his club must then fulfil.

“If we are first to qualify and [be certain of being] first in the group then we can rest some of our players and be able to use some of the youth team for the rest of the group stages,” the 44-year-old said.

Vilanova was then asked to expand on whether fielding shadow sides would be in the spirit of the competition; Celtic desperate for Barca to treat their two remaining games as seriously as the double-header against them which are most likely to return the Catalans a full six points. The head coach was at pains to produce an answer that put local minds at ease – even if his excessive verbiage suggested a man who might be seeking to cover his earlier tracks.

“It would be good to rest some players but don’t worry, the teams we will use in the next games will always be top level,” he said. “The fact these players don’t play very often doesn’t mean they do not have an excellent level. We will always try to win games.”

Despite the assurances, Celtic’s mission tomorrow night is twofold. By some miracle, they have to find a way to take something from the encounter not simply for their immediate hopes of competing for second place in Group G, but for helping that aim in the longer-term aim of keeping Barca honest when they travel to Moscow in a fortnight.

Vilanova was both the perfect guest – he congratulated Celtic on their 125th anniversary, enthused about the Celtic Park atmosphere – and the perfect diplomat over what his team may face tonight. Lobbed up the old “anti-football” accusation as was levelled at Celtic for their disciplined, goal-guarding approach that came within 40 seconds of the 94 minutes of stealing them a 1-1 draw, the Catalan coach was himself defensive of his Glasgow opponents.

“When you play against Barce­lona, we force you to defend very close to your goal,” said ­Vilanova. “It’s the way Barcelona plays. Everyone is free to play how they want. We were never calm or relaxed about Celtic. We always knew they were dangerous on the counter-attack so I think we always had to be wary.

“I don’t know how they will play in front of their own crowd. They weren’t that defensive though, they played well and made it very hard for us. It was hard for us to beat them, we only did it in the last minute so I think that has to be remembered. They are dangerous on the counter-attack and very strong at set-pieces so it will be really tough for us to win. We saw Celtic before we played against them. They played as we expected. We knew about their set-pieces. We knew [Gary] Hooper was fast so there was no surprises there but I don’t know what it will be like tomorrow night.”

Vilanova was questioned by Catalan journalists about the possibility of Gerard Pique making his return after “50 days out” with injury, but was circumspect about the defender being sufficiently fit for a start after only a week’s training. Vilanova managed to squeeze out a rare smile, meanwhile, when the subject turned to the lack of a goal for Lionel Messi on Saturday in the 3-1 home win over Celta Vigo. One member of Catalan press claimed the peerless Argentinian attacker had been unhelpfully “obsessing” about getting a goal in the week he became a father for the first time and would it be the case that the coach would be having a word with him and telling him to desist?

“No, no,” came the response. “I’m not going to tell Messi anything. He’s intelligent enough to know what to do. He always wants to score so that game was no different.” Messi was out of luck against Celtic in the Nou Camp. Celtic’s luck will have to be in and then some for the daddy of football not to give birth to a net-bulging moment this evening.