Celtic Football Club has had a habit over its 125 year history of producing wonderful moments at the most opportune times. But there has surely never been a birthday party with a gift like a victory over Barcelona. If it had happened in a comic strip it would have been called unbelievable.
Barcelona came to the East End of Glasgow in great form. The current crop of players is undoubtedly one of the greatest club teams that the game has ever seen. They play a brand of football that few others have ever attempted, let alone matched. It is, quite simply, a joy for football fans to watch them play.
A look at the two sides before kick-off could only lead any impartial observer to conclude that the Catalans were massive favourites. They had Lionel Messi, the greatest player in the world today and one of the top three players in history. Xabi and Iniesta, perhaps the best midfield partnership that the game has seen. Fabregas and Villa were only on the bench, tremendous players but unable to break into the first eleven. Some £60M worth of talent held in reserve!
The home side started without club captain Brown, top striker Hooper and left back Izaguirre, three players who would have definitely started if fit. Also missing were the likes of Rogne, Forrest, Stokes and Lassad. Neil Lennon must have had a difficult time coming up with a tactical plan for such a massive match with so many players unavailable for selection.
The famous atmosphere at Celtic Park on European nights is always very special. But on this night it was something quite incredible. The occasion, the colour of the full stadium display, the thunder as the Champions League theme tune was drowned out by 60,000 voices roaring in unison. An atmosphere unmatched anywhere in world football.
To quote the Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova: “We’ve been lucky to play in some great stadiums in recent years, in England for example. But I’ve never seen anything like this ground tonight. It was spectacular and I congratulate Celtic.”
So on to the match. From the start Barcelona passed and moved. They played the beautiful game as only they can play it. Their star players were bright and lively, causing problems for the Celtic defence. But the home side defended stoutly and resolutely. They worked and worked to deny space and chances. And when needed goalkeeper Fraser Forster was at his best.
But Celtic made chances too. And it was Victor Wanyama who opened the scoring on 21 minutes, a powerful header from Charlie Mulgrew’s corner finding the net and sending the vast majority of the crowd into ecstatic celebrations. For the second match in a row Celtic led Barcelona.
Now, exited as I was, I also felt a lot of trepidation. Remember David Narey scoring against Brazil and how it stirred them into a four goal response? But the defence stayed solid. And, very importantly, Celtic were able to keep the lead intact until half time on this occasion.
In the second half Barcelona became increasingly frustrated by their lack of success. How often do you see this great passing side resorting to hopeful high balls into the box? Yet that’s what happened here. The Celtic defending was dogged and determined and Forster made more saves, a one handed stop from a Messi shot perhaps the most impressive.
An injury to full back Lustig gave Neil Lennon a decision to make with less than twenty minutes left. And he made the brave judgement that another striker was his best option. So eighteen year old Tony Watt, whose transfer fee would not pay the wages of a Barcelona first teamer for a week, was given the chance to shine. How many managers would have brought on another defender and tried to hang on to the 1 – 0?
Just minutes later Xabi misjudged a long kick out from goalkeeper Forster and it was young Watt who ran through on goal. With the calm nerve of a veteran he cracked the ball unerringly into the corner of the net and, almost unbelievably, Celtic were two goals ahead. Bedlam resulted.
Now I was a believer. Celtic were about to beat Barcelona. What a feeling!
But the great Messi finally got his goal right on 90 minutes, ensuring an agonising four minutes of injury time for the Celtic faithful. Surely the triumph would not be snatched cruelly away? Barcelona pressed ever forward but could not make another chance. I’ve never seen a goal kick greeted with the type of cheer that erupted seconds before the final whistle was blown.
And then it was over. Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. Incredible.
It is almost impossible to describe the wild celebrations that followed. The likes of AC Milan and Manchester United have been defeated at Celtic Park in recent years, so the fans are used to big results. But this was on another level. This was the great Barcelona. This was phenomenal. It wasn’t just Rod Stewart who was in tears.
For Celtic manager Neil Lennon this was a quite amazing triumph. In only his second year as a manager he has achieved something that many others will never equal. His tactics were perfect, his bravery rewarded. He deserves every moment of celebration, every piece of praise that he gets. We all know what this man has been through, what he has suffered for the club. Legend is the only word for Neil Lennon.
For every player involved this was a game they will remember throughout their career, indeed their lives. Every last one of them was immense and there were no failures. But several stood out, giants who gave everything for the cause.
Fraser Forster was a colossus. His two performances against Barce have been stunning and Joe Hart must surely be worried about his England place.
Adam Matthews, just 20 and playing out of position at left back, was quite tremendous. He tackled and harried, blocked and marked. He worked himself to a standstill.
Victor Wanyama in midfield did not look out of place amongst the stars he faced. Number 67 has learned all about Celtic very quickly and his growing reputation is deserved. £15M, Sir Alex? No thanks.
Georgious Samaras wasn’t fully fit after an injury in the first game against Barcelona. But he ran all night long. He chased and carried the fight to the opposition. You could see fear when he ran at their defence.
And Tony Watt. What can you say about Tony? At just 18 years old he is big, strong and fast and showed again that he knows how to finish. Will he ever score a bigger goal in his career? Let’s hope so.
This was a game that was won by desire and heart. By great tactics matched with iron discipline and sheer hard work. Celtic did not choose to sit back; they were forced back by a superb attacking side. But every man did his job and the team came out on top.
There is still a feeling of disbelief among Celtic supporters that this amazing result was achieved. But victory was secured and the record books now show that Barcelona came and were beaten. The collection of megastars played well, but not well enough to take the spoils.
In the incredible 125 year history of a club formed to feed the poor in the East End of Glasgow there have been many great moments. 25 May 1967 in Lisbon still tops the list – but the birthday party victory of 7 November 2012 will now feature near to the top of the highlights reel.