Celtic boss Neil Lennon should take a very important lesson from tonight’s 6-1 defeat to Tata Martino’s Barça: don’t disrespect an opponent. During yesterday’s pre-match press conference Lennon accused Barça’s 21-year-old Brazilian star Neymar Jr of immaturity. Neymar responded on the pitch with a blistering performance and his first blaugrana hat-trick. Barça’s victory confirmed top spot in Champions League Group H and Barça will play one of Manchester City, Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04, Galatasaray, Zenit and Olimpiakos in the last 16.
With Leo Messi and Cesc Fabregas out for tonight’s game Martino opted to play Neymar again in the central striker role. Youngsters Sergi Roberto and Martin Montoya were included in the starting XI but there was no place for Marc Bartra as Martino kept faith in his Piqué-Mascherano partnership in central defence.
There had been many questions raised about Barça’s fitness and attitude following the defeats at Ajax and Athletic but tonight the team came out strongly from the start. The intensity was exemplified by Alexis’s battling and by Piqué winning any rare ball that came over the half-way line and Barça were immediately in control. The passing was fast and slick and when Celtic did manage to get the ball Barça were winning it back quickly.
There was an early shout for a penalty when Lustig nudged Neymar in the back as he jumped for Xavi’s cross but the Russian referee Sergei Karasev waved play on. Soon after Pedro played Neymar into the area but the Brazilian’s shot was deflected for a corner by Van Dijk’s block. The ball was not cleared properly from the corner and with Celtic pinned back Pedro found a glorious pass through the gap to Alexis who should have scored himself with a quick shot, instead the Chilean tried to cut inside and his shot caught a deflection off Ambrose, Celtic keeper Forster stuck out a leg to save but the ball flew to Piqué who was lurking at the far post and the Barça defender controlled the rebound before blasting a shot into the roof of the net.
The goal changed little as Barça continued to pin Celtic back in their own half. The only thing missing was the final ball with Neymar failing to get the ball back to Alexis and then Pedro’s backheel was cut out before it could reach Neymar. In the 23rd minute Alexis managed to get past the left-back before pulling the ball back to Neymar but the Brazilian’s shot found Ambrose in the way. Soon after Xavi’s free kick came to Piqué again at the far post but Ambrose again managed to make a vital block.
Neymar was coming more into the game and just after the half-hour mark he made two excellent runs that brought of approval from the crowd. The first a straight dash past Matthews up the left which ended with a decent-looking cross that found nobody, the second a brilliant run inside past Lustig with a 360º spin to leave Biton stranded and only a desperate foot from Ambrose brought the brilliance to an end.
There had been nothing from Celtic going forward and Pinto had only needed to punch away one free-kick into the area. Then in the 34th minute Samaras dribbled into the box but Piqué managed to stay with the Greek forward to concede a corner. After the corner the ball came out to Biton who smacked in a powerful 30-yarder but Mascherano was in the way to block.
Any idea that Celtic might be coming back into the game didn’t last long as Barça scored a second in the 39th minute. Piqué spotted Neymar’s run and threaded a pass forward, the Brazilian took the ball in his stride and then left Ambrose for dead with a superb step-over before crossing low to Pedro who darted in to the near post to strike the ball home from six yards.
There was no letting up from Barça and shortly before half time the team created a splendid third goal. There was a typical long build-up with Celtic chasing shadows, the ball came to Alexis on the right and after quick touches from Xavi, Busquets and Sergi Roberto the ball came back to Alexis who sent a beautiful chip over a defender for the forward run of Montoya who squared first time for Neymar to finish with an easy tap-in.
The second half begin in the same vein. Neymar was obviously enjoying himself now and he scored an authentic golazo less than three minutes after the restart. Busquets and Sergi Roberto combined to find the Brazilian who played a quick back-heel to Xavi while breaking free to reserve Xavi’s return and smash a shot just inside the post from 20 yards.
The goal of the night was still to come and Neymar was saving it for his hat-trick. Adriano played the ball inside between Brown and Lustig to find Neymar on the edge of the left side of the penalty area. The Brazilian turned to face Ambrose who he bamboozled with a right foot roll over the top of the ball followed by a quick touch with his left which sent the ball through Ambrose’s legs, with Forster coming out to close the angle Neymar slipped the ball past the Celtic keeper and Matthews could on the goal-line could do nothing prevent the ball going in.
With a five-goal advantage Martino brought on Tello in place of Alexis. Neymar continued to threaten the Celtic goal and could easily have added to his tally. One splendid long ball forward from Mascherano found the Brazilian in acres of space but his movement to go past Forster sent him on a collision course with Pedro coming in from the right, both players paused with Pedro finally taking the shot but the ball hit Van Dijk and went over.
Barça made it 6-0 in the 72nd minute when Xavi played Adriano into space on the left and the full-back found Tello who had the help of a deflection to beat Forster. Song was brought on for Busquets and with ten minutes remaining Dongou replaced the irresistible Neymar. Barça’s intensity had been impressive all night but right at the end the team relaxed allowing an unchallenged Samaras to head a consolation goal from a free-kick. Celtic came to life for the final couple of minutes with Commons forcing a save from Pinto and then Samaras being foiled by Piqué’s header off the line. However, the reaction from the Scots came far too late in the game to have any meaning.
Of course there will be those who point out how poor Celtic were, before offering any praise for Barça’s performance. That’s not my concern tonight, I’ve heard it too many times in the past, the point is when Barça play with this intensity, with fast accurate passing and high pressing for a quick recuperation of the ball, our opponent needs to be a very good team not to get steamrollered. Neymar was without doubt the man-of-the-match and his goals will go a long way to silencing any criticism over his scoring record so far. Alexis and Piqué also deserve high praise tonight, Alexis for his work-rate and insistence to try things and Piqué for a dominating performance which shows what a top class defender he is when he puts his mind to it. A shame that the last five minutes showed what happens when his mind starts wandering. I should also mention Sergi Roberto who gave a very competent performance in midfield. He doesn’t try anything fancy but always moves the ball on quickly and simply in the traditional Barça way. If he keeps playing like this Martino will have little option but to give the youngster more minutes.
The level of concentration and intensity is exactly what we want to see week in week out. Despite the slip at Ajax the Champions League group has been dealt with efficiently. On Saturday we return to La Liga with the visit of fifth-placed Villarreal to Camp Nou. We will need to maintain the levels of intensity if we are to win and maintain top spot in La Liga for another week.
Barça: Pinto 6; Montoya 7, Piqué 8, Mascherano 7, Adriano 7; Xavi 7, Busquets 8 (Song m73, 6), Sergi Roberto 7.5; Alexis 8 (Tello m63, 6.5), Neymar 9.5 (Dongou m80, 6), Pedro 7.5.
Celtic: Forster; Lustig, Van Dijk, Ambrose, Matthews (Stokes m82); Ledley, Brown, Biton, (Commons m68), Boerrigter; Pukki (Mulgrew m45), Samaras.
Goals: m7 Piqué 1-0, m39 Pedro 2-0, m44 Neymar 3-0, m48 Neymar 4-0, m58 Neymar 5-0, m72 Tello 6-0, m88 Samaras 6-1.
Yellow cards: m41 Sergi Roberto, m41 Brown, m69 Matthews.