Monday, October 22, 2012

Barcelona v Celtic: The magic men

Tomorrow night Celtic face the sternest test of the Champions League campaign with a trip to face Barcelona. Spanish football enthusiast Gary Linton, the Messi of Twitter @AlbaEspana, takes a look at a Barcelona side where attacking brilliance and a winning mentality continue to overcome a makeshift defence.

The best team to ever play the game, they play the most beautiful football in the world. They’re not human beings, they’re all robots.

All these things and many, many other things have been said about this Barcelona side. To be honest, it’s all true, well maybe not the robots part, but frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!

They have Messi, they have Xavi and they have Iniesta. That’s not all, they have Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, David Villa the list could go on and on.

What Celtic must realise and what Celtic manager Neil Lennon already knows, is this side will hurt you from all angles, and they’ll hurt you bad.

It’s not a one man, two man or even a three man team, it’s an eleven man team, coaching staff, substitutes, tea ladies, kit men, pitch man and of course the most important part of this fantastic and special club, the fans.

Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, was in the Celtic side that beat Barcelona in the 2003/04 UEFA Cup fourth round. Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández played in Celtic's 1-0 first-leg victory, and they all featured again in the goalless second leg. That is a result that will stay with Celtic fans that were there for those two legs, it will stay with Lennon and all other players who managed to triumph over this fantastic side.

Because since then it’s not looked so good for Celtic, it’s not looked so good for many clubs (we’ll get back to that a little later). Barcelona in recent years found a new man to manage them, they found Mr Pep Guardiola.

A man who won it all with Barcelona, a man who toppled all that came his and his team’s way, he may or may not have ‘built’ this team, but he certainly put his stamp on it, made them play his way and made them win his way. The way that’s got them mentioned by almost every single football fan as the greatest ever side to play the game.

He’s now left, he’s no longer at Barcelona but all the players still are. Their new boss is Pep’s second hand man, Tito Vilanova. With Tito in charge they’re still the same old winning Barcelona. Tito has been in charge of Barcelona for 13 matches, in those 13 matches he’s won 11, drawn one and been defeated once.

Yes, back to the part where I mentioned it’s not looked so good for Celtic against Barcelona since that 2003/04 UEFA Cup win.

In 2004/2005 Henrik Larsson struck against his old club with Deco and Ludovic Giuly also scoring when Barcelona won 3-1 at Celtic in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Lennon appeared along with Valdés, Puyol and Xavi and all four were present in the Camp Nou return, together with Andrés Iniesta, a 60th-minute substitute. It finished 1-1 after John Hartson cancelled out Samuel Eto'o's strike.

A couple of seasons went by and Barcelona and Celtic met again, this time in the 2007/08 round of 16. It was going well for the Scottish side; they went 1-0 up through Vennegoor of Hesselink in the 16th minute, and then found themselves level moments later when Messi scored, they then went back in front with a goal from Barry Robson. It wasn’t enough and eventually goals from Henry and a second from Messi saw Barcelona win the first leg, the second leg was all to play for, but Barcelona did what Barcelona do, they won. They won the return leg 1-0 courtesy of a Xavi goal for a 4-4 aggregate victory.

Now let’s get back to Tito Vilanova and today’s Barcelona. As I said  they are "winners" with just a single defeat so far for Tito at the hands of Real Madrid in the super cup second leg. However, since that defeat they’re unbeaten in their last eight games, with seven wins and a single draw, again against Real Madrid, this time in the league.

Messi’s on form, 27 goals for club and country in his last 16 appearances, Xavi’s back, Iniesta’s back and so is David Villa. The likelihood, looking at past meetings and recent results, is a Barcelona victory.

But wait: there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Barcelona do have "some" problems. Pique doesn’t look likely to feature in the game, Puyol is out injured, Abidal is still sidelined as he’s been for the whole season and of course Dani Alves is still out injured.

So they have to go with a 'make shift' back line. Young Montoya has recently filled in at right back; they've got to go with the centre back pairing of one former midfielder turned defender in Javier Mascherano and a midfielder playing as defender who still likes to act at times as a midfielder in Alex Song. That’s unless Tito goes with Adriano (a left back or left midfielder) at centre back but even then you’d still have a very 'unreliable' and not 'up to scratch' defence.

They are also missing a pivotal part of the 'defence' in defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets who is suspended following his red card on match day two.

Now I know, I know what you’re thinking, Barcelona are Barcelona and whoever plays will fill in just fine. You may be right.

But I know one thing for sure; I’d rather go up against a back line like that instead of a back line featuring Pique, Puyol and Alves.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Sevilla who put two past them a couple of weeks back, or even Spartak Moscow who did the same. If you don’t believe either of them just ask Deportivo La Coruna who, just this weekend, put four past them, that’s right four.

They did in the end lose the game 5-4 but, come on, I said 'some light' at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-1

Possible starting XI: Valdes – Alba, Mascherano, Song, Montoya – Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas – Tello, Messi, Pedro.

Match facts: Celtic

  • The 3-2 win at FC Spartak Moscow was Celtic's first in 21 attempts away from home in the UEFA Champions League. They had lost 19 of the previous 20.
  • Fraser Forster and Scott Brown have played all 540 minutes of Celtic's campaign, qualifying included.
  • Ten of the side that started on match day one were making their group stage debuts, with Brown the sole exception.
  • Victor Wanyama's next yellow card will incur a ban.

Match facts: Barcelona 

  • Barcelona have won 99 games in the UEFA Champions League, group stage to final, and scored 346 goals.
  • Lionel Messi has been UEFA Champions League top scorer for an unprecedented four successive campaigns.
  • Xavi Hernández has completed 236 of his 266 passes so far, both the highest in the competition. Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano are second and third respectively.
  • Barcelona have completed 1,400 of their 1,627 passes; both competition highs.
Read Gary's blog at Alba España

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