Barcelona won 2-0 with a goal in each half. The first, a sublime effort from the Sublime Master, the second a disputed penalty during Celtic’s best period of play. The visitors forced one point-blank save from Craig Gordon, and struck the woodwork, but Celtic limited them to far fewer chances than on any previous visit since the current Celtic-Barcelona series of games began in 2004.
Attack the ball
On match day two, against Manchester City, the most striking aspect of Celtic’s play was their high pressing. City were harried throughout. Celtic did the same to Barcelona last night. One, two, three and often four players arrived on the scene, high up the field, to close space and nick the ball. This was a risky tactic but proved to be very effective (note: it didn’t work for Emilio down the left in the second half).
As a consequence, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong regularly won possession in the midfield. While you may have detected a drop in the level of our passing game in recent league outings, on a pristine surface last night, and under the greatest scrutiny, our passes were fast and accurate.
This high press combined with crisp passing meant we played the game a lot higher up-field against Barcelona than at any time since Larsson, Thompson and Sutton were doing their stuff. The performance ended in defeat, so it will not be remembered as fondly as the game in 2012, but our ability to hold the ball, pass and move, was superior.
A few things to ponder:
Whatever was ‘wrong’ with Craig Gordon was fixed after the arrival of some competition. His save from Suarez was exceptional – even better on TV replay than it looked at the game.
Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko were unlocked by Messi once, but that aside, they didn’t miss a beat, and were always comfortable in possession. The van Dijk-Denayer partnership has been the high water mark in modern times by which other Celtic central defensive pairings have been judged. You’d be harsh to argue Jozo and Erik are performing below that level.
Honourable mention for Mikael Lustig too. Neymar annoyed me with his approach to sportsmanship three years ago. His behaviour last night, when he should have been red carded for two off-the-ball incidents, discredited his team. It was no surprise he was substituted within minutes of the second incident.
Scott Brown bossed central midfield for parts of the game. Stuart Armstrong’s dad probably didn’t know he had that level of performance in him. He’s unrecognisable from the player who couldn’t get near the team last season.
In common with all of our advanced players, Tom Rogic’s opportunities to shine were fewer than our defensive players, but Barcelona pressed him more than any other Celtic player, and he came away with the ball more often than I expected.
Of the 14 Celtic players used last night, we got 45 minutes from Scott Sinclair and 90 from Moussa Dembele, neither of whom were material to our performance. The rest were all at the club under Ronny Deila. The transformation in Celtic, with largely the same players, is astonishing. Store this experience away for the next time we’re underperforming and need to plan a recovery.
Kieran Tierney, Kolo Toure, Leigh Griffiths, Bir Bitton and Patrick Roberts could have easily made the starting line-up without any perceivable drop in standards. There’s an unaccustomed depth to Celtic’s squad.
Lots going on right now with a Cup Final to look forward hard on the heels of a Champions League game but we’ll pick up on some strategic stuff tomorrow. Also keen to get my hands on the calculated leaking of part of a store rental deal without the corresponding information. If you attempt to drive a club into the sea, it’s financial options will leave it exposed to harsh terms.
This torchlight display on 67 minutes phenomenon is a special. Respectful, understated and classy. Well done.