Stephen Halliday: Foul count highlights Celtic’s failings

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers on the touchline at the Nou Camp. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS Group
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers on the touchline at the Nou Camp. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS Group
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One simple statistic reveals how Rodgers’ side were unable to lay a glove on the Barca magicians

Amid the blur of numbers which ultimately added up to the heaviest defeat in Celtic’s European history, one of Uefa’s official match statistics told its own story of their mauling in the Nou Camp.

During an evening which saw Brendan Rodgers’ men largely chasing the shadows of some of the most accomplished and dangerous players in the world, they committed only three fouls.

It is a startlingly low number for any match in any competition and one which neatly emphasises how Celtic were simply unable to lay a glove on Barcelona as they succumbed helplessly to the 7-0 loss which created headlines around the world.

Celtic crucified by Messi was how French sports daily L’Equipe summed up the scintillating display of attacking football masterminded by the brilliant Argentine who helped himself to a hat-trick.

It was only the first and certainly the most difficult fixture Celtic will face in Group C of the Champions League. But while Rodgers is unlikely to find himself on the wrong side of such a mismatch again in the campaign, it nonetheless brutally exposed the continuing limitations of the Scottish champions when they operate at the elite level of the game.

Just three days after they had underlined the degree of their domestic dominance with the 5-1 defeat of Rangers which maintained their 100 per cent winning start to the quest for a sixth consecutive league title, Celtic were forced to confront the painful reality of their status as Champions League also-rans.

In the 50th anniversary of the season when they lorded it over the rest of the continent as the first British club to be crowned European champions, the gulf between Celtic and Barcelona was an elevated example of a deeper lying problem for Scottish football.

There is simply no sign of the decline in standards being arrested. This season alone, Scottish clubs have suffered defeats to opponents from Gibraltar, Luxembourg and Malta in European club competition.

The most alarming aspect of the slump is the clear technical superiority the majority of foreign teams are able to display in these ties. While Barcelona are a class apart when they are as much on their game as they were on Tuesday night, it was still an inability to keep possession under pressure which contributed significantly to Celtic’s downfall. It is a factor which has been clearly identified for improvement by Rodgers during the early stages of his tenure. In many ways, it has been a curious start to life as Celtic manager for the Northern Irishman who now finds himself having overseen two defeats which rank respectively as the most embarrassing and the heaviest his club have ever suffered in Europe.

Just as he recovered quickly from that mortifying false start in losing 1-0 to Gibraltarian part-timers Lincoln Red Imps in July, Rodgers will be confident he can soon restore positive momentum for his team in the aftermath of their harrowing night in Catalonia.

A trip to Inverness on Sunday may not have been top of their wish list for their next assignment but Celtic under Rodgers have already provided considerable evidence that they will remain well ahead of the pack on domestic duties this season.

Much of their football has been bright and progressive with Rodgers’ summer signings making a generally positive impression. Scott Sinclar has been the pick of the bunch and was one of the few Celtic players to make an impression in the Nou Camp.

Despite his failure to convert a penalty kick on Tuesday, Moussa Dembele has already done enough to suggest he will prove a shrewd investment. Kolo Toure has brought authority in central defence, albeit not against Barcelona when he simply found himself fighting fires in the face of Barca’s relentless tempo and precision.

It was a torrid evening for Cristian Gamboa to make his debut for Celtic and judgement on the Costa Rican right-back will be reserved for later.

Of the five new recruits Rodgers has brought to Celtic since replacing Ronny Deila, it is Dorus de Vries whose acquisition is perhaps the most questionable. In his three appearances so far, the Dutch goalkeeper has done nothing to suggest he represents a significant upgrade on Craig Gordon in that position in any respect.

Rodgers offered the view on the eve of Tuesday night’s game that his players would be better off for the experience of playing Barcelona, regardless of the result. Only time will tell if such a loss can indeed contribute to enhancement of their own abilities further down the line, but going head to head with Messi was certainly the most intense form of education a promising young talent such as Kieran Tierney could possibly face.

With no obvious cure for the travel sickness which has afflicted Celtic ever since their first taste of Champions League group stage football 15 years ago – the eye-watering record now stands at just one win in 25 away games in that stage of the tournament – it looks as if they will have to rely on their home form yet again if they are to stand any chance of further progress.

Just how realistic a hope that is, however, in a daunting roup which sees Manchester City as the first visitors to Celtic Park when matchday two comes around on 28 September is open to doubt.

From the moment the draw was made, the best-case scenario for Celtic has always appeared to be somehow edging out Borussia Monchengladbach for third place in the group and the subsequent relocation that brings to the knockout phase of the Europa League after Christmas.

If Rodgers can somehow meet that target, then his first season in Europe will be regarded as a success, irrespective of any of the painful defeats suffered along the way.