As Celtic celebrated 125 years of history on Wednesday night, another memorable chapter was written into those annals. The green and white faithful couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present than the one they unwrapped in the pouring rain of Parkhead. Celtic 2 Barcelona 1, and (whisper it), maybe one foot in the knockout stages of the Champions League. For a team that rookie manager Neil Lennon built from scratch after inheriting an utter shambles, it’s an achievement that sits among the high points of that century-and-a-quarter.
While the Hoops received widespread praise for their heroic near miss at Camp Nou a fortnight ago, they also had to endure their fair share of criticism from certain quarters abroad. Defensive and negative some said. Bernd Schuster went as far as to say that teams like Celtic weren’t fit to compete with the likes of Barcelona. A penny for his thoughts now. On one of those famous European nights that are so woven into the fabric of Celtic folklore, the critics were silenced while Celtic Park roared.
The atmosphere in the stadium was just unbelievable. After releasing a roar that shook the very ground as their team went into their trademark huddle, the Green Brigade led the rest in a call and response chorus that must have had even regulars at Camp Nou quaking. The fans were doing their bit, and the scene was set. The players just had to respond, and how they did.
While the Catalans again enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, this was a far cry from the backs to the wall resistance of two weeks previously. I wrote for Sabotage Times before the game that Celtic had to keep cool heads and make the most of what possession they did get, choosing out balls wisely and not giving the ball away cheaply. This is exactly what they did, with Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons happy to run at Barcelona and Joe Ledley linking up play with simple but well chosen passes. And then there was Victor Wanyama. The Warrior lived up to his nickname with a towering performance. He chased, he harried, he blocked. He didn’t allow Xavi the time or space to dictate the play. He frightened the life out of Andres Iniesta and stood up to Alex Song’s attempts to bully the Celtic midfield. And when he had the ball, he kept it, even if it meant dribbling past a couple of Barca players. Wanyama’s performance belied his 21 years and his attitude summed up the mentality of the whole team: Celtic were not afraid of Barcelona, and the Catalans didn’t quite know how to deal with that. Charlie Mulgrew epitomised the spirit, psychologically bossing Lionel Messi by telling him exactly how a drop-ball situation was going to play out, and sending him packing with his tail between his legs.
Celtic played to their strengths and Barcelona’s weaknesses. I also wrote prior to the game that their defence was wobbly and lacked aerial power, and so it proved to be when Wanyama rose unmarked to head home Mulgrew’s pinpoint corner. Marc Bartra may go on to be a world-class centre half, but right now he’s not the finished article and the flustered youngster almost let Mulgrew in for a second that would surely have finished things off. Let off the hook, Barca’s dominance grew and Celtic were pinned back more and more as the second half went on. Lionel Messi was more prominent than in the first game, floating round the edges of the Celtic box and looking for the killer ball, but the Hoops stood firm, not allowing him to pick the locks. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster was immense once again, and there was a palpable sense that this time it was going to be okay – it seemed like a night that was written in the stars. When 19 year-old Tony Watt came off the bench to coolly slot past Victor Valdes, it was time for the birthday party to begin in earnest. Even by Parkhead standards the noise was deafening and the atmosphere electric. At one point, the fans could be heard singing, “Can we play you every week?”
This was a coming of age for a team whose average age is, incredibly, around 23. Watt’s composure was well beyond his years. Adam Matthews, playing out of position, cut the concentration lapses from his game to snuff out the considerable threat of both Pedro and Dani Alves. Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose stood tall against Alexis and Messi. The team just didn’t have a weak point, all the more laudable given that they were without their captain Scott Brown, top scorer Gary Hooper, former Player of the Year Emilio Izaguirre and current Young Player of the Year James Forrest. It was also a rite of passage for Neil Lennon. Much has been written about certain Celtic players, but how much has the stock of the manager risen? A man whose managerial career began with international notoriety for a touchline brawl has quickly matured into a shrewd tactician and a peerless motivator.
Messi’s late goal had nerves frayed for the last few minutes but Celtic held on for a magnificent result, even more so in terms of what it means for the tournament. If Spartak Moscow fail to beat Barcelona in the next round of matches, a draw with Benfica in Lisbon, another place written into Celtic legend, would be enough to send the Hoops through with a game to spare. This would exceed the expectations of most, but then exceeding expectations is becoming Neil Lennon’s trademark. Celtic have beaten Barcelona before in recent times, but this was different. To beat this Barca team on this anniversary was the stuff of fairy tale. Many happy returns, Celtic, and here’s to many more of those famous European nights.
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