Celtic FC arrived at the Camp Nou probably more in hope than expectation. Returning from a four year absence from the Champions League, Neil Lennon’s side could hardly have been granted a more daunting task. That said, there hasn’t been a better time in quite a while to come to the Catalan Capital as Barcelona’s back line, ravaged by injury in recent weeks, has developed a nasty habit of leaking soft goals.
Mark Bartra was handed a pretty high profile starting berth at centre back in the absence of regular pairing Pique and Puyol, while Adriano took the place of the injured Dani Alves. Jordi Alba made up the final quarter of the make shift back line. Alex Song came in for the suspended Busquets, and Iniesta and Xavi relegated Cesc Fabregas to the bench in spite of a stellar performance at the weekend. Up front Alexis Sanchez got the nod ahead of David Villa and was partnered by Pedro and Messi.
Barcelona dominated from the kick off and Celtic had to be content with ball watching. Sanchez really should have opened the scoring in early minutes after a clever run was picked out by Xavi, but the Chilean dragged the ball wide with just Forster to beat.
Newcomer Bartra nearly found himself on the score sheet on the fifteenth minute. A clever corner from Xavi picked out Messi, who floated a ball into Iniesta who teed up the youngster with a side foot volley, but the debutant could not beat the keeper with his head. Celtic were awarded a free kick from a seemingly harmless position moments later. The in swinging effort found the head of Samaras, however it was Mascherano that deflected the ball into his own net. Neil Lennon couldn’t mask his delight and punched the sky in jubilant celebration.
Barcelona continued to enjoy possession of the ball but made little in the way of clear cut chances. It was Bartra again who had the goal at his mercy, but his free header in the box from an Iniesta cross couldn’t find the target. Celtic’s primary danger man Georgios Samaras was replaced by James Forrest before the half time whistle after coming down awkwardly on his ankle. It looked as if the visitors would carry their lead into the break but parity was restored after a sensational one-two between Xavi and Iniesta in a crowded penalty area resulted in the latter poking the ball home from close range. The two managers headed for the tunnel with Vilanova by far the more eager to give his troops a good talking to.
Celtic started the second half brighter and pressurized the creaking Barcelona defense. The visitors decided to throw more bodies forward and the game opened up and the fans enjoyed end to end movements. The balance of power swayed from side to side as they approached the hour mark with both teams trying to claw their way into the lead. Forster pulled off a terrific save from point blank range to deny Messi after Pedro found him in the six yard box in the 66th minute. Mascherano was yellow carded after another of a series of clumsy challenges with twenty minutes left on the clock. Forster was at hand again to deny Messi from a headed effort in an acre of space approaching the last fifteen minutes. Cristian Tello replaced Pedro and David Villa came on for Alexis Sanchez moments later. In spite of Villa going close with a right footed shot against the post, it looked like there was no way through the Scottish back line. There was to be drama at the death, however, as Adriano chipped a dangerous cross into the penalty area which floated over the head of Villa only to find Alba who bundled it into the net for a heartbreaking finish for the visitors who had lived on their nerve for ninety four minutes.
Image: Miguel Ruiz (FCB)