Barça’s winning run came to a halt tonight with a 2-1 defeat to Celtic at the magnificent Celtic Park tonight. Despite dominating possession throughout the game Barça were frustrated by Celtic’s defensive formation while conceding goals from our two old favourites: a corner kick and a long ball down the middle. Leo Messi finally pulled a goal back in injury time to dedicate to his new born son but it was all too late.
Gerard Piqué was back in the squad after injury but Tito Vilanova preferred to give Marc Bartrá another start at the back which meant Barça played the same eleven as in the 2-1 win over Celtic at Camp Nou except for Alves at right back instead of Adriano. Alex Song continued in place of the suspended Busquets while Alexis returned to the attack in place of David Villa who returned to the bench after starting the last three games.
Celtic made three changes to their Camp Nou XI with Adam Matthews, Kris Commons and Miku replacing Izaguirre, Brown and Hooper. Before the game there was a splendid mosaic from the crowd and the traditional deafening rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone to get us in the mood. Right from the kick off the pattern of the game became clear, Celtic concentrated on keeping a disciplined shape which only pressed for the ball in the last 40 metres of Celtic’s half while waiting for a Barça slip to try and launch a quick ball up to the lone forward Samaras. Barça played the typical patient passing game, moving the ball from side to side with effortless ease but penetrating the Celtic box was much more complicated.
The first chance for Barça came in the seventh minute but after Alexis diverted Xavi’s shot from the edge of the area Celtic keeper Frasier Forster made his first save of the night. A minute later Messi fired over after Alba pulled the ball back and it didn’t look as if it would take Barça long to break through. There were two early fouls from Commons on Iniesta and Song but the Dutch referee Björn Kuipers decided the first yellow card should be for Song for pulling Miku after 13 minutes. Five minutes later Kuipers let Song off a second yellow after another foul by the Cameroonian on Miku.
The first danger from Celtic came with a long throw from the left which Valdés had to punch clear, and when Ambrose sent in another throw from the right in the 19th minute our defence could only concede a corner. Mulgrew swung the ball in left foot from the right, the ball came towards the back post where we only had little Alba covering the zone, the powerful Wanyama stole in and rose above Alba to head cleanly past Valdés. Canal+ commentator Michael Robinson declared that the goal was like ‘robbing candy from a child’.
After the goal Celtic sat even deeper with nine men getting back behind the ball to protect Forster. Messi had another frustrating game, often moving out to the right side, but he still looked our most dangerous player. In the 29th minute he cut in from the right, skipping past one challenge before finding Iniesta who sent a short ball back into the Argentinian who despite being surrounded by defenders, found a brilliantly quick control before snapping a shot from 15 yards that clipped off the top of the crossbar.
Barça continued to press with both Alves and Alba constantly getting forward on the flanks. As is often the case, Alves’s crossing was erratic but his insistance nearly paid off when he sent in a peach of a cross which Alexis rose to head but we were again denied by the woodwork as the ball bounced out off the far post. The attacks continued all in one direction with Forster needing to do well to dive and push Alba’s cross away as Messi waited to pounce.
We began the second half concentrating attacks down the right side with Alves sending in three crosses of which only one found a Barça man but Pedro couldn’t twist his header goalwards. Messi continued to drift towards the right side, once just failing to get on the end of a one-two with Alves, and another time curling for the far post but Forster had the shot well covered. Alexis tended to move inside to a more central position rather than stay on the left and in the 60th minute Messi spotted him with a defence splitting pass but Alexis’s first shot was saved by Forster and his attempt to fire in the rebound was frustrated by Wilson.
Bartrá and Mascherano had had very little work to do at the back but Bartrá spoiled a reasonable game with two mistakes in three minutes, first he gave a poor ball out of defence but Alba managed to tidy up the error, and then Bartrá inexplicably allowed a free kick to bounce but Mulgrew failed to capitalize and Bartrá got back to recover.
With twenty-five minutes remaining Villa came on for Alexis and the game still looked winnable for Barça. Messi sent a pass through for Alba on the left and when the ball came back Messi fired a low shot and Forster made his best save of the night, diving to the left. However, when Song kicked Miku from behind we could have had no complaints if Kuipers had pulled out a second yellow. The ref decided against it but Vilanova decided it was too risky too leave Song on so Fabregas replaced him while Piqué returned to action after seven weeks out, in place of Bartrá.
For once Vilanova’s changes failed to produce a reaction from the team. Celtic stayed deep but our shooting was off target or there was always a defender to block or Forster to save. With seven minutes remaining Forster saved comfortably as Messi tried again to curl for the far post, and the Celtic keeper sent a long ball forward, Xavi had moved back to Song’s position but here he made a complete hash of intercepting the ball, Xavi’s mistake caught Mascherano unexpecting and Celtic sub Tony Watt raced through to fire low past Valdés.
Two-nil. It didn’t seem possibly considering how much of the game had been played in Celtic’s half. However, it could have got worse soon after when Watt again looked quicker than Mascherano who might have been sent off as the last defender after tugging at Watt’s sleeve, though the forward’s exaggerated fall may have influenced the ref’s decision to wave play on. Our luck was summed up by Piqué getting in the way of Villa’s volley in the 89th minute.
Messi finally found the net, pouncing on a rebound as the game entered injury time after a rapid pass move through the middle involving Iniesta, Fabregas and Villa. There were a couple more tense minutes for Celtic to hold on but there was no last minute heartbreak for them tonight. It’s a set-back for Barça but it shouldn’t be an important one. I’d like to say we can learn from our mistakes but defending set-pieces and long balls down the middle have been our main defensive weakness for far too long now.
Congratulations to Celtic on a historic victory. The football wasn’t the prettiest but for the crowd alone they were worthy winners tonight.
Celtic: Forster; Lustig (Watt m72), Ambrose, Wilson, Matthews; Commons, Wanyama, Ledley, Mulgrew; Miku, Samaras (Kayal m79).
Barça: Valdés 6: Alves 6, Bartrá 5.5 (Piqué m71, 6), Mascherano 5.5, Alba 6: Xavi 5.5, Song 5 (Fabregas m71, 6), Iniesta 6: Pedro 5.5, Messi 6.5, Alexis 6.5 (Villa m65, 6).
Goals: m21 Wanyama 1-0, m83 Watt 2-0, m91 Messi 2-1.
Yellow cards:m13 Song, m41 Miku, m65 Alba