Barça needed a 94th minute winner from Jordi Alba to see off a spirited Celtic side at Camp Nou tonight. The 2-1 victory leaves Barça as clear leaders in Uefa Champions League Group G with nine points from three matches, five points clear of Celtic who remain in second place. However, it was a tough night for the blaugrana, especially after Georgios Samaras headed Celtic in front with the help of a big deflection off Javier Mascherano. Andrés Iniesta fired Barça level just before half time after a good combination with Messi and Xavi. Throughout the second half Barça searched for a winner with no luck but the attacking ambition was rewarded with the last-gasp winning goal coming from a connection between right back Adriano who crossed and left back Jordi Alba who touched the ball over the line from close in.
With the numerous absentees in defence Tito Vilanova finally decided to play Marc Bartrá in central defence alongside Mascherano. Adriano was preferred over Montoya to fill in for Alves at right back while with Busquets suspended, Alex Song moved back to his favoured position of defensive midfield. Iniesta moved back to midfield, leaving no place for the in-form Fabregas. Up front, Pedro began on the right with Messi in the middle while Alexis got a start on the left.
It took Barça less than two minutes to split Celtic’s defence open with Iniesta threading a pass through to Alexis but the Chilean striker pulled his shot wide. However, Celtic were not rattled and and their defensive 4-4-1-1 formation proved difficult to break through. Alba demonstrated his ability to get forward, overlapping Alexis to put in a dangerous cross in the ninth minute, as Barça concentrated most attacks on the left.
Barça didn’t force a save from Celtic keeper Fraser Forster until the 16th minute after a typical Barça short corner came to Messi 35 yards out in the centre, Messi sent the reverse pass in for Iniesta’s run and Iniesta sent in a first time side-foot volley cross that Bartrá headed straight at Forster. Immediately from the keeper’s save Celtic broke forward with the powerful Victor Wanyama leading the charge, Adriano finally stole the ball from the Kenyan midfielder but then sent a wayward pass out to the left which was intercepted by Scott Brown. Alexis, tracking back, fouled the Celtic player and from Charlie Mulgrew’s inswinging free kick Samaras flicked on a header which hit Mascherano, taking a big deflection that gave Valdés no chance.
Celtic were obviously lifted by the goal and they set about defending tenaciously. Barça had all the possession but the chances were slow in coming. Messi fired a free kick a yard over, then in the 29th minute Bartrá failed to get good contact on his header from Iniesta’s cross, flicking the ball wide.
Barça began to raise the pace. Adriano had a low shot saved at the near post by Forster, Xavi tried a donkey kick style volley that went wide and Messi sent another free kick just over, his shot clipping the top of the net on its way down. Things began to go wrong for Celtic in the 40th minute when goalscorer Samaras landed awkwardly on his ankle after being pushed in the back by Adriano and had to be subbed off for James Forrest. Then in the 45th minute Messi played the ball forward to Iniesta who played a quick pass off to Xavi who controlled and return for Iniesta to receive and stab the ball past Forster’s dive.
The one-way traffic continued in the second half with Celtic pinned back deep with just Hooper now alone up front. However, from Celtic’s first corner Wanyama had a chance to score at the far post but he failed to get good contact. Messi tried a delicate lob that went over but there was little penetration from the Barça forwards.
Adriano had the first attempt on target of the second half in the 56th minute but it was an easy save for Forster and nearly ten more minutes passed before Forster had to save again from Messi’s 25-yard effort. Barça began to increase the tempo and Messi sent in Iniesta after dribbling across the edge of the area but Iniesta’s final shot again went straight at the Celtic keeper.
In the 68th minute Barça put together a tremendous flowing move, Messi moved the ball forward to Alexis who played the ball right to Pedro who sent in a low first time cross which found Messi six yards out but Forster made an excellent save. Then five minutes later Alba scooped a pass over the top for Alexis but Forster was out quickly to block and soon after Iniesta tried his own style of scooped pass into Messi whose diving header was splendidly turned inches past the post by Forster.
With time running out Vilanova brought on Tello and Villa for Pedro and Alexis. The forwards had been disappointing but their replacements fared little better. Tello sent in one cross towards Song but the excellent Wanyama managed to get in the way. Barça’s full backs continued to push forward, Adriano skied a chance in the 88th minute and soon after Alba was battling into the area to win yet another corner.
A striker might have finished the hero but Villa fired against the base of the post with the clock on 89 minutes 56 seconds. It wasn’t the strikers’ night but it wasn’t Celtic’s either. In the 94th minute, Bartrá, who hardly put a foot wrong all night, pushed forward on the right before finding Tello, the winger tried to go past the full back but finding no way, turned and played the ball back to Adriano who sent in a deep cross to the far post where Alba got away from Commons to edge the ball across the line from barely a yard.
Another victory, another game that leaves doubts. The defence was generally much better though Celtic hardly put them under any pressure. All the danger was again at set pieces and even though there were only about four crosses in the entire game for our defence to deal with, we again looked very vulnerable. In attack, playing against a team that played two deep lines of four, our forwards struggled a lot in the one-on-ones. we could really do with Villa and Alexis finding their form while today even Pedro was disappointing.
However, I reserve my biggest gripe tonight for Tito Vilanova. First, how is it possible he didn’t try Bartrá before. It’s not as if he’s had no first team experience, and every time he’s had a chance he’s given a good showing. The decision to try Song there has proved to be a mistake and I don’t know how much has to do with trying to please a new player but it could have been very costly. We should have Piqué and Puyol back in the not-too-distant future but if we have more injury problems in defence Tito should definitely go with Bartrá ahead of Song from what we have seen. The other strange decision tonight was that of benching Cesc Fabregas. When he was playing poorly Tito stuck with him while sacrificing Xavi or Iniesta, now that he’s started finding his best form and Tito leaves him sitting on the bench for 90 minutes. If the results keep coming then Tito will have no problems. However, I’m not quite sure whether his luck will hold out until May.
Barça: (4-3-3) Valdés 6.5: Adriano 7, Bartrá 7.5, Mascherano 6.5, Alba 8; Xavi 7, Song 6.5, Iniesta 7.5; Pedro 5.5 (Tello m76, 6), Messi 6.5, Alexis 6 (Villa m80, 6.5).
Celtic: (4-4-1-1) Forster; Lustig, Wilson, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Brown (Commons m63), Wanyama, Ledley, Mulgrew (Beram Kayal m76); Hooper; Samaras (Forrest m41).
Goals: m18 Samaras 0-1, m45 Iniesta 1-1, m94 Alba 2-1.
Yellow cards: m71 Mascherano, m79 Adriano