Tata Martino’s Barça go marching on after a 0-1 victory tonight at Celtic Park. There was no Leo Messi but the two players who were expected to take more responsibility proved to be decisive. Neymar Jr was now the team’s star and he played his part by drawing several fouls including one from Scott Brown after an hour which was punished with a straight red card from the French referee Stephane Lannoy. With Celtic down to ten men, Cesc Fabregas, who played Messi’s false nine role, headed in the only goal of the game from substitute Alexis’s cross with fifteen minutes remaining.
There were various changes to the teams that faced each other last season at Celtic Park when Celtic won 2-1. Piqué, Adriano, Busquets, Fabregas and Neymar came in for Mascherano, Alba, Song, Alexis and Messi from Barça’s starting XI last year. While for Celtic there was no Wilson, Wanyama, Ledley or Miku who were replaced by Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown and Stokes.
The contrasting styles of the two teams was evident right from the start, with Barça stringing together about thirty passes in the first 100 seconds before Celtic even touched the ball. The problem was that with Celtic concentrating on closing spaces anywhere near their goal there was little penetration from Barça’s forwards. The first moment of danger came in the fourth minute when Iniesta nutmegged Ambrose inside the area but Van Dijk was quickly across to cover. Then a minute later Celtic put together a good quick move down the left, the ball came to Stokes who sent a fine ball into the left of the area for Samaras and Valdés had to be out quick to close the angle and block.
The possible danger from Celtic’s breaks led to Barça playing a more conservative game. The ball was moved patiently from side to side, and often Barça moved backwards in an attempt to draw Celtic out, but every time Barça moved forward Celtic regrouped in a packed defence to shut off all routes to goal. Barça didn’t manage a shot until the 17th minute when Fabregas met Alves’s low cross with a side-foot effort wide then soon after Neymar sent a weak shot rolling wide. Then in the 19th minute Iniesta made space with a nice shimmy to throw Brown off balance, before firing just wide from 25 yards.
There had been little from Neymar so far as Celtic right-back Lustig looked solid early on. In the 23rd minute the Brazilian made his first exciting run but his final pass, which was looking for Alves, was well cut out by Commons. A minute later Neymar was warned by the referee for diving and it was beginning to look like a frustrating evening for the Barça star. But then soon after he sent in a fine ball for Adriano to chase but the full-back fired his shot into the side-netting.
Neither goalkeeper was having much work to do. Celtic’s populated defence continued to form a solid barrier in front of Forster while Bartrá and Piqué dealt well with any ball played out towards Samaras. Celtic, in fact, were struggling to string three passes together in a scrappy period while Barça’s passes towards the danger area were also off-target and missing a finisher. There wasn’t a decent combination until the 40th minute after Pedro played a nutmeg in midfield and then opened play out for Alves to cross from the right, Neymar met the ball at the near post but flicked his shot just wide. Then in the 44th minute Neymar beat Lustig for the first time on the left, and the Swedish full back received the game’s first yellow card for a crude foul. Xavi swung in the free kick and Forster made a hash of his jump for the ball and was lucky to deflect the ball on with his shoulder and out for a corner.
The improvement towards the end of the first half continued after the break. Neymar became more and more involved and his direct runs were causing Celtic problems. In the 55th minute he tried a run through the middle, the ball bounced kindly to Xavi but the veteran midfielder’s venemous shot was blocked by Van Dijk. Then in the 58th minute Neymar set off on a gallop down the left, Brown was close on his heels but wasn’t fast enough to catch him, with the Brazilian about 35 yards from goal Brown clinically took Neymar from behind. The Celtic fans will no doubt have been expecting a yellow card – I certainly was – and may feel hard done by that the ref went straight for the red. But the truth is the Celtic midfielder really had absolutely no chance of playing the ball and as a tackle from behind the ref’s decision could be justified.
Barça could now smell the three points. The build-ups continued to be patient but as Celtic’s ten men tired the Scots became more and more stretched by Barça’s ball movement. Bartrá got forward in the 65th minute to hit a powerful low 30-yarder that Forster dived to his left to save, then three minutes later the young central defender was forward again to assist Fabregas who drove a cross-shot straight at the Celtic keeper. Barça continued to push forward with Neymar making a short dribble inside the area before playing a wall pass off Xavi but the Brazilian blazed his shot wide.
Then against the run of play Celtic had a clear chance to take the lead. Barça had done well dealing with any corners or free kicks crossed into the area. But in the 73rd minute Mulgrew sent a long throw from the left into the danger zone, Barça only cleared the ball as far as Celtic substitute James Forrest who smashed a shot towards goal but Valdés flew magnificently to his right to turn the ball over the bar.
The importance of Valdés’s save was magnified when Barça took the lead two minutes later. A Celtic attack broke down and Busquets played the ball forward to Neymar in a central position 35 yards from goal. The Brazilian held the ball up well before releasing Alexis who had just come on in place of Pedro, the Chilean crossed from the right and Fabregas met the ball unmarked at the far post with a header across Forster and in.
With a man less Celtic found no response. Barça should probably have added to Fabregas’s goal but Forster made one fantastic double save to deny Neymar and Alexis. Then in injury time a splendid run and pass from Alexis sent Neymar clean through but Forster made another splendid save low to his left.
There was a lot about Barça’s game tonight that wasn’t pretty and you could tell Celtic Park was none too impressed by some of Neymar and Alves’s theatrics. However, last season with Messi we lost whereas tonight without him we take all three points. One has to be impressed by the seriousness we showed in defence with encouraging performances by both Bartrá and Piqué, while Busquets also provided good cover. Martino has a good sense of when we can put on a show and when we need to take a more practical approach. The results so far could hardly be better with the Supercopa in the trophy cabinet and a 100% win record in both La Liga and the Champions League. We have also kept a clean sheet in an impressive seven out of eleven games this season. Valdés’s form here has been crucial of course. The first stop tonight from Samaras was good and then his save from Forrest was arguably his best and most important of the season so far. Besides Valdés, Neymar turned out to be the game’s decisive player after starting slowly, I just wonder whether the whack on the head he took in a clash with Izaguirre sparked him into action as his game seemed to come to life afterwards.
Following Milan’s draw at Ajax, Barça now lead Group H with six points with Milan in second place on four, Ajax third with a point and Celtic without a point at the bottom.
Celtic: Forster; Lustig (Forrest m70), Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Matthews, Mulgrew, Commons (Pukki m86); Stokes (Kayal m70); Samaras.
Barça: Valdés 7.5; Alves 7, Bartrá 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Adriano 7; Xavi 6, Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 6.5 (Song m89, –); Pedro 6 (Alexis m74, 7), Fabregas 7 (Tello m78, 6.5), Neymar 8.
Goal: m75 Fabregas 0-1.
Yellow cards: m44 Lustig, m55 Fabregas, m75 Busquets, m77 Samaras, m85 Izaguirre, m90 Alexis
Red card: Brown m58