A pantheon of European champions look poised to battle their way to Lisbon, where the 2014 UEFA Champions League title awaits. After a punishing defeat to FC Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of last year’s edition, FC Barcelona will attempt to bring the trophy back to Catalunya. Being drawn in a difficult group of all former European Cup champions, the Catalans will have a treacherous autumn, facing off against the likes of AFC Ajax, AC Milan, and Celtic FC. Each week, in the lead off to the kick-off of the group stage, totalBarça will profile one member of Group H in the hopes of better understanding the enemy. Roberto Curtis kicks things off this week with a look at Scottish opponents, Celtic FC.
Seems there’s always a chance of rain in Glasgow. It is home to some of the gloomiest weather around, and the Scottish Premier League draws plenty of parallels. With the shambolic plummet of top-flight staple Rangers FC to the third division (whom Ajax coach Frank de Boer signed to from FC Barcelona 13 years ago on August 30), even the exciting Old Firm match ups between Celtic and Rangers occur with less frequency these days. Ho hum.
Back-to-back league champions as well as current Scottish Cup holders, Celtic’s domestic dominance could almost be compared to that of FC Barcelona were Madrid’s two biggest sides to suddenly be out of the La Liga picture. Sure, a Heart of Midlothian could come around every blue moon (or sunny day) and snatch a cup title from you, but domestic Scottish competition doesn’t exactly give you the pedigree to compete in the modern game.
FC Barcelona defender and Brazilian international Daniel Alves did not have the highest of hopes for the green and whites, saying they were tough, but not too tough.
“Celtic are renowned for their character and pride. They always offer maximum effort on the pitch and that means it’s never easy for their rival. Especially in Glasgow where they are strong,” Alves said. “But for me the group is clear. We must qualify for the next round along with AC Milan because our clubs are superior to Celtic and Ajax.”
Bold words, yet this was the sunny and elated attitude of many culés last November when Barça travelled to Celtic Park for the fourth round of the Champions League Group Stage. After a tense 90 minutes at the Camp Nou that ended with Jordi Alba breaking a deadlock and snatching three points from the visitors, Barcelona took the advantage to Celtic. It would be the Scots this time around, however, who made a meal out of their visitors. A shocking two goals sneaked past Barça keeper Victor Valdés, which was more than enough to give Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s side a well-deserved victory at home.
Truth be told, Scottish football is under such a dark cloud, that Celtic has willingly cut back on its wages, probably to make the most out of the lucrative UCL group-stage cash flow to prepare for a challenge from Rangers in the coming seasons. With their bitter rivals now sitting in first place two divisions below, Celtic has offloaded three of its biggest earners in Victor Wanyama (who scored against Barça in Glasgow last season), Kelvin Wilson and Gary Hooper, while Paddy McCourt and Daryl Murphy have also moved to England this summer given the lack of competition in Scottish footy. New blue-light-special reinforcements include former Schalke striker and Finland international Teemu Pukki and Israeli midfielder Nir Biton.
Lennon still has some rays of sunshine to work with in Greek titan Georgios Samaras and defensive stalwart Charlie Mulgrew, both of whom gave Vilanova’s men a torrid time in Parkhead November. There is plenty of experience in this Celtic side and the Bhoys will certainly be bolstered after an invigorating result against UCL playoff opponents Shakhter Karagandy.
After going down 2-0 in the away leg in Kazakhstan, Celtic fought back and clinched its eighth-ever group stage berth thanks to a James Forrest injury-time winner to make it 3-0 on the night. Lennon said after the match, “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in football.”
While some might consider this setting the bar low, the reality is that Celtic beat Barcelona last year and nearly tied with the Catalans at the Camp Nou. One would expect manager Gerardo Martino to be at his bus-breaking best. Even with Celtic opening up on the counter attack, two Barcelona shots off the woodwork and a goal from Lionel Messi at the death, it was not enough to break the Celts in their own back yard.
One thing is certain, the climate will be immense, with Celtic’s fans having a renowned propensity for traveling. Our own Alexandra documented how special the atmosphere was around the Camp Nou last season when the two teams met. The Catalans and the Scots will have much to celebrate when they reunite: Henrik Larson, Catholicism, regional pride and autonomy, and an attitude that shows they believe they are each supporting more than a club. And hopefully the clouds of competition and fog of war will separate, if only to briefly allow a rainbow of blaugrana, green and white to shine down on the pitch.
Roberto Curtis is a New York-based editor and translator for totalBarça. Follow him at @RobertoCurtis.