The Catalan giants had gained a last-gasp win over the Scottish League leaders at Camp Nou on October 23 with a stoppage-time Jordi Alba free kick and another victory would have put the Blaugrana’s Champions League group stage campaign to bed with two games still to play.
Not surprisingly, Celtic took all the plaudits for a famous victory but, as at Camp Nou, although Barcelona kept the ball and created chances, they failed to adjust their own game to adequately deal with Celtic’s consistent disruption of their rhythm.
Barca Coach Tito Vilanova had insisted before Wednesday night’s game that Barca were fully aware of the danger Celtic were capable of creating, despite widespread criticism having been levelled at Neil Lennon’s men for what many saw as an excessively negative approach.
In a repeat pattern from the Camp Nou encounter, Barca’s intricate passing game was met time and again by Celtic massed defensive ranks. The home side again broke up the familiar flow of Barca’s football, their limited but effective style repeatedly nullifying the Catalans’ dominant share of possession.
Vilanova had warned his players about the threat posed by the Scottish side at set pieces, but refused to join the chorus of criticism towards Celtic for their defensive display at Camp Nou last month. Those warnings appeared to go unheeded, however, as Victor Wanyama rose above Jordi Alba to score with a powerful back post header from Charlie Mulgrew’s first-half corner.
Throughout the game, Celtic soaked up the relentless and intense Barca pressure, but stunned the Blaugrana once more late in the second half with a route one strike, the like of which is rarely seen in La Liga, as young substitute Tony Watt shot low past Victor Valdes from goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s long downfield punt.
The contrasting styles of the two teams at Celtic Park, in what was only Barcelona’s second defeat in all competitions this season, was a timely reminder to the Catalans that neither they nor their elaborate passing game are infallible. Ultimately the Glaswegians’ direct style, described by Lennon as ‘realistic’ rather than defensive, proved more effective on the night. Celtic had created very little until Wanyama’s 21st minute goal, and Barcelona enjoyed an incredible 85% of first-half possession without making any of it count.
Perhaps surprisingly, Vilanova left Cesc Fabregas and David Villa on the bench and started the match with Marc Bartra in central defence alongside Javier Mascherano after the youngster had come off the bench against Celta Vigo last weekend. The Coach may well have been gambling on finishing off the Hoops without fielding his strongest XI.
Fabregas and Villa eventually replaced Alex Song and Alexis Sanchez respectively and Bartra gave way to Gerard Pique, but the stronger line-up failed to pierce the resilient Celtic rearguard. Lionel Messi’s fine solo effort in stoppage time pulled one back for Barca, but the defeat means points are still required from their remaining games against Benfica and Spartak Moscow to be sure of progression to the knock-out phase.