Rolling-over St Mirren easily tells you nothing about what will happen at the Camp Nou. As it is, we performed as well as any team in Europe would have last night. Inter Milan and Chelsea won the Champions League in 2010 and 2012 respectively after putting on a similar performance to Celtic in the most testing theatre in football.
The manager, players, supporters and everyone at the club deserve enormous credit for their part in this. Celtic’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider they live within their means, and this is not a dig at some former domestic rivalry, the most consistent trait of those currently regarded as uber-teams, including Barcelona, is a refusal to limit expenditure to match income over any business period. We can admire the art of this Barca team while looking forward to the day Financial Fair Play regulations inhibit their expenditure to the £200m-or-so a season more than Celtic’s income.
Barca will know they face a difficult task at Celtic Park in two weeks. Our goal came, as I predicted on Sunday, after a free kick inside the Barcelona half was dropped onto an elevated Celtic head inside the box. When the game is analysed I’m sure the coaches will conclude that we should have invited more challenges in similar areas – on the wing, circa 35 yards from goal. This is an easier area of the field to get possession in than the penalty box and, for Celtic, equally as dangerous.
Messi, Xavi and Iniesta got everything right for their first goal immediately before half time. The passing was fast, tight and each first touch was excellent, but this was a rarity. On all other occasions Celtic forced them into a pass which was too tight or too fast, or to simply make another safe pass and try again.
The second Barcelona goal was a consequence of defending too deep to press the cross. It was the kind of goal you lose in the 94th minute on a huge pitch.
Celtic successfully defended corner kicks zonally. For 70 minutes Barca took short corners, almost always to an unmarked player on the wing, Celtic didn’t mark this player all game, which brought a complaint from me every time, but they defended the zones the needed to inside the penalty area. Conceding possession outside the box looked like a conscious decision. Eventually Messi was reduced to pitching corners down the throat of the Celtic defence with predictable results.
There is still have a hard job ahead to qualify for the knock out stage or for the Europa League but we have gone toe-to-toe with every team in the group and have competed admirably with each – which was regarded as an objective as recently as last month. I’m enjoying my football this season.