The Champions League returns tomorrow (Tuesday) with Barça taking on Scottish champions Celtic in the always tremendous atmosphere of Celtic Park. With Leo Messi joining Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol on the injured list Tata Martino has called up centre-back Sergi Gomez and midfielder-turned-right-back Patric Gabarrón from Barça B to make up the numbers in a 21-man squad for the game.
Pedro Rodriguez took a knock in Saturday’s 0-2 win at Almeria but he has been included in the list and should be fine to play if needed. With Messi missing, Martino could opt for either Neymar or Alexis to play a more central attacking role though it seems more likely he will again choose Cesc Fabregas in the false nine role. This means Neymar will almost certainly return on the left wing, leaving Alexis and Pedro to fight for the other forward spot. We should see our classic trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield, while with limited options in defence we will probably repeat the back four of Alves, Piqué, Marc Bartrá and Adriano. Bartrá will no doubt be hoping to build on his good performance in Almeria
Barça and Celtic are no strangers in European competition, having faced each other on eight occasions in the last ten years. Anyone thinking it will be easy for Barça tomorrow should take a look at these previous games. In the spring of 2004 a 1-0 Celtic win in Glasgow followed by a 0-0 draw at Camp Nou saw Barça eliminated from the Uefa Cup. The following autumn Barça recorded a fine 1-3 win at Celtic Park in the Champions League group stage but the Scots managed a 1-1 draw in the return in Barcelona. The teams met again in the last 16 of the 2007/08 Champions League with Barça winning 2-3 in Scotland in the first leg and 1-0 in the return. Then last season the two sides were drawn together in Champions League Group G, an injury-time goal from Jordi Alba gave Barça a 2-1 victory in the game at Camp Nou but Celtic got revenge winning 2-1 in Scotland incidentally with Bartrá appearing in both games. Both sides classified for the next round where Celtic were beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Juventus while Barça of course went on to lose to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.
There have been few changes at Celtic since last season’s meetings. Neil Lennon is still the coach and the core of the team is the same. However, midfielder Victor Wanyama, who was very impressive last year, has been sold for £12.5 million to Southampton while striker Gary Hooper moved to Norwich for £5 million. The most important players signed are defender Virgil Van Dijk (Groningen £2.6 million), winger Derk Boerrigter (£3 million Ajax) and Finnish striker Teemu Pukki (£3 million Schalke), though of these probably only Van Dijk will start tomorrow.
With the demise of bitter enemy Glasgow Rangers, Celtic easily won last season’s Scottish League by a margin of 16 points over second placed Motherwell. This season the Bhoys have started strongly with six wins and a draw from seven games. Last Saturday they won 2-5 at Kilmarnock with a hat-trick from Greek striker Georgios Samaras who you may remember opened the scoring for Celtic last season at Camp Nou. Inverness Caledonian Thistle are top of the league on goal difference but Celtic have a game in hand.
It’s always a pleasure to face Celtic, the two contrasting styles of the teams guarantee an interesting battle if not always the most open game, while the vociferous Celtic fans always provide a magnificent atmosphere. For Barça a draw might seem a good result in as far as classifying for the next round is concerned. However, given the importance of finishing top of the group, we really should be looking for all three points. In the first round of Group H matches two late goals gave AC Milan a 2-0 win over Celtic while Barça were beating Ajax 4-0.
For a recent insight into the Celtic-Rangers rivalry here’s an excellent documentary which is well worth a watch.
Barça’s 21-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Patric, Piqué, Bartrá, Sergi Gomez, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Neymar, Tello.
Possible starting XIs:
Celtic: Forster; Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Matthews, Mulgrew, Commons; Stokes, Samaras.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartrá, Piqué, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Fabregas, Neymar.
Prediction: Celtic 1 Barça 2
Date: Tuesday 1 October 2013. Kick off: 7.45 pm in the UK, 8.45 pm in Spain.