It’s an interesting time in European football. The bread and circus of the 21st century has become an outlet of public sentiment for the social changes taking place in Europe, at least in Spain; the ongoing financial crisis is evident in the increasingly empty terraces, while Catalunya’s movement towards a referendum on independence has transformed the Camp Nou into a cauldron of political slogans reminiscent of earlier days. Racism, too, has been at the forefront of these changes; UEFA and FIFA have branded Matchday 3 in this seasons Champions League as FARE Action Week to publicize the fight to remove racism and xenophobia from the game. Someone should mention this to the president of the Spanish FA, Angel Villa Llona, who was so kind as to recently point out that “…there is no racism in Spanish football”. Surely comforting words to the black players who have been on the receiving end of some less-than friendly gestures as of late, including the tossing of bananas onto the pitch. Perhaps Llonas is a believer in the theory of immaculate banana conception.
Barcelona play host to Celtic FC this Tuesday in the third matchday of Group G. Fresh from a thrilling 5-4 victory over Deportivo La Corunña, and still nursing a string of injuries to the first team, Vilanova’s men will look to continue their unbeaten run at the Camp Nou. Buoyed by their unexpected defeat of Spartak Moscow in matchday 2, Celtic will enter the match hoping for the most unlikely of upsets against the current group leaders.
First, let us dispel with some of what has been written in the sporting papers over the past few days: Deportivo La Coruna are a good, scrappy side, and while defensive errors were committed by the Catalans, it was a fantastic match. It will be good for the league to see some of the smaller teams competing on a more equitable playing field, and really, don’t constant annihilations get a bit boring? There are, however, a number of things for Tito to take away from this match, largely that the defence remains a pressing problem. Now missing three of the starting back four in Alves, Puyol and Pique, it seems certain that Song will continue to play a cameo role in the back field. Why the Barcelona hierarchy decided now was a good time to loan Andreu Fontàs to Mallorca is beyond my powers of deduction, but Martín Montoya is clearly not complaining.
Tuesday evening should see a back four largely unchanged from Saturday’s match at the Riazor, although I would not be surprised to find Adriano starting in the left-back spot in order to give Jordi Alba a day off. A fabulous performance on the weekend should see Fabregas start in the midfield, alongside Xavi and Iniesta. It’s an interesting balancing act in this part of the pitch as Xavi is increasingly in need of a rest now and then, but I expect Villanova to start the midfield maestro. I do, however, expect a bit of a shakeup in the attack: I think this will be the European match that sees David Villa get a starting berth to ease back into things, and it would be nice to see Sanchez given the same opportunity on the right to feed in to Messi. The chilean was an unused substitute on Saturday evening, and should be well rested following his jaunt down to South America for world cup qualifying last week.
Celtic arrive in the Catalan capital in high spirits, having dispatched their weekend opponents St. Mirren in a 5-0, and presumably still a bit shocked by their win in Moscow on matchday 2. Still, despite their fine form as of late, manager Neil Lennon is under no illusions about their trip to the Camp Nou. “I’m not saying we’re going to go there and get hammered,” Lennon told The Scotsman. “We’re going to try to get something out of the game, but we know how monumentally difficult that will be”. Well then.
Still, Celtic must not be completely dismissed. They have real quality in the attack, including young striker Gary Hooper, but perhaps most dangerously for the Barcelona defense, Georgios Samaras. The vastly experienced Greek international has been capped 62 times for his country, and at nearly two meters tall is just the sort of aerial threat the Blaugrana defense has trouble with.
Well, it’s time for a prediction. This promises to be an entertaining game however you look at it, but I would say on the whole this looks like an inevitable victory for the Catalans. Even with theeir depleted defence the embarrassing riches in the midfield and attack should be too much for Celtic to manage. I would not be shocked to see the Bhoys get themselves on the scoresheet, be it through a moment of Valdes negligence or some other self-inflicted wound (read: set pieces). But really, are Celtic going to be the team to break Barcelona’s home run of victories in European competition? I do not think so.
FC Barcelona 4-2 Celtic