Celtic should not feel shamed by falling victim to a Barcelona team inspired by Lionel Messi. More disappointing for Brendan Rodgers than this result in isolation, one assumes, is the fact elimination from Europe was simultaneously confirmed. Celtic’s manager must continue his rebuilding process when engaged only in domestic pursuits, with even the Europa League denied to his side.
Barcelona were vastly superior on an evening when they did not seem to touch top gear. They will qualify for the Champions League last 16 as group winners. “This was a very difficult section,” said the Barcelona coach, Luis Enrique. “It is great to come first with a game to spare.”
Messi’s prominence, so often taken for granted, was a joy to watch. The sharing of goals between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Manchester City means watch is precisely what Celtic will have to do after the final match of Group C. When Celtictravel to Manchester for matchday six, there will be nothing tangible at stake for either team
Rodgers was not exaggerating with the pre-match assertion that his players must produce “the game of their lives”. Rules of modern-day football finance have created a gulf between clubs such as these. Barcelona’s potency had been illustrated in the 7-0 demolition of Celtic in September. This game at least followed a different pattern.
“The team deserve great credit,” insisted Rodgers. “We weren’t fearful tonight. As a coach you look for improvement. I think this team has made significant improvement. This experience was always going to be invaluable for us.”
Luís Enrique had not been able to call upon Messi for last weekend’s draw with Málaga. The Argentinian returned for this game after recovering from a stomach bug.
Messi was duly prominent from the outset. His feeding of Neymar created a ninth-minute opportunity which the Brazilian could not convert. Messi himself was soon wasteful when failing to connect with a terrific Sergio Busquets pass. The same accusation could also be applied as he flicked an Ivan Rakitic header over the bar from all of four yards. With 20 minutes played, perhaps Celtic could dream their illustrious visitors were to endure one of those nights.
Such hope would prove in vain. Messi’s opening goal, taken first time, owed plenty to a wonderful, lofted Neymar pass in the 24th minute. The Barcelona captain clipped the ball home.
Brilliance from Craig Gordon kept Barça’s advantage at one by the interval. The Scotland goalkeeper produced acrobatics to deny Luis Suárez at point-blank range, Messi the architect. By this juncture, Barcelona were dominant.
Celtic were dealt a half-time blow when the injured Scott Sinclair had to go off. The 27-year-old has seen his career rejuvenated since a summer move from Aston Villa.
Sinclair’s replacement forged the 53rd-minute chance from which the home side should have equalised. James Forrest’s cross found the head of Moussa Dembélé, who failed to further enhance a blossoming reputation when directly in front of goal, Marc-André ter Stegen afforded a straightforward save. “Hopefully as time goes on, we learn to take the chances as they come,” Rodgers said.
How costly this miss was to prove. In Barcelona’s next attack Suárez was hauled to the ground in the Celtic area by Emilio Izaguirre. The penalty was quite correctly awarded, despite the post-match complaints of Rodgers, with Messi stepping forward to give his team breathing space. The only shock thereafter was that the 29-year-old did not complete a hat-trick.
Neymar, having received a booking for a clash with Mikael Lustig, was fortunate not to collect another for a trip on the same player. “Handbags,” was the Luis Enrique assessment afterwards. His lack of concern rather summed up Barça’s evening.