It is not every day you get the chance to see some of the finest players in world football, so we are at Celtic Park for the Group G, Champions League tie, as Celtic take on the might of Barcelona.
We parked along the Gallowgate, about a mile from the ground and walked up. With the floodlights visible up ahead, the closer you got to the ground, the noisier the eager and excited gathering of supporters got. After queuing for a programme, we made our way inside and took in the sight and sound of the vociferous crowd.
In the build up to the game, there had been some team news that threatened to overshadow the event. Full back, Emilio Izaguirre, Captain, Scott Brown and top scorer, Gary Hooper were all sidelined through injury, leaving Manager, Neil Lennon to alter his entire game plan. It meant a start at left back for Welshman, Adam Matthews, Ledley and Wanyama would be the main focus in the centre of the park, with the on loan Venezuelan, Miku playing as the lone striker.
Barca, under the stewardship of Tito Vilanova are in fine domestic form. The Spaniard, who replaced Pep Guardiola in the summer has continued where his predecessor left off, although in their home tie versus Celtic last month, they did struggle to claim all three points. They too have have had to contend with a couple of injuries to key players, although it has not affected their early season momentum!
Most notable of the absentees, was the curly mane of Carles Puyol at the heart of the defence. They could still call upon the Brazilian, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, with young Marc Bartra getting a chance at centre half, with the extra cover options coming from Alex Song and Javier Mascherano. Although not fully fit, Gerard Piqué also made the bench for the Catalan giants.
In midfield, there were the familiar faces of Iniesta and Xavi, with the width of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro on the flanks, to feed some wee guy called Messi up front!
Prior to kick off, there was an incredible colour display of the original club crest, to commemorate Celtic’s one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary. This was arranged by the ‘Green Brigade’, a fans group who have a dedicated section in the ground and involved every single fan in the ground was fully endorsed by the club’s hierarchy. As the Champions League music comes over the sound system, the noise within the stadium reached fever pitch and it does almost make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Celtic started the game purposefully, retaining the ball and closing down the early Barca attacks. The first chance of the match came in the sixth minute, when Forster got down well to deal with Xavi’s close range shot, which had deflected off Sanchez. Another sweeping move minutes later, ended with a Messi shot that went just over the crossbar.
With barely ten minutes gone, Celtic could count themselves fortunate, when Lustig looked to have made contact with Sanchez as he burst into the box. I have seen them given, not just at this level but in similar circumstances however, the Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, waved play on.
Barcelona continued to ping the ball around the field and it was fascinating to watch, but for all their possession, Celtic closed down the space and broke up their play. On the limited times Celtic strung a few passes of their own together, they were relatively composed on the ball, though their distribution and use of the ball could maybe have been better.
In these kind of fixtures, always expect the unexpected! With twenty minutes on the clock, Celtic forced a throw in, near the Barca penalty area and was put deep into the box by Ambrose. It was headed straight back out to the Nigerian, whose attempted cross came off Sanchez for a corner. Mulgrew’s subsequent kick went straight to the back post, where the unmarked Victor Wanyama headed firmly past Valdes, to open the scoring. Celtic Park erupted, though it was mixed with elation and a bit of surprise!
The reply from the visitors was swift. Another nice passing move ended with Alba cutting the ball back to Messi, which saw the Argentinian superstar fire a superb shot goal wards. It was touched onto the bar by Forster and out of play, although bizarrely, no corner was given.
Just after the half hour mark, Jordi Alba again down the left wing managed to cut a cross along the six yard box, but once again there were no takers. Ten minutes from half time, Barca again came close to an equaliser. A quick free kick on the right wing, saw Alves whip a ball into the Celtic penalty box. He picked out Sanchez, whose well timed downward header came back off Forster’s left hand post, before being cleared.
Five minutes from the break, Barca came close again, as Lionel Messi weaved his magic again. After a patient build up, Messi played a defence splitting pass for Alba to collect. The full back timed his cross to perfection and met Messi, who had darted to the front post however, Forster dived bravely at the strikers feet to save.
Barcelona continued to press the game, but the Celtic defence managed to restrict their shooting abilities and held firm, to take an important psychological lead into the interval.
Although it was an opportunity for Neil Lennon to regroup and plan their strategy for the second half, it started as the first had ended, with Barcelona controlling the midfield and retaining possession. The constant threat came from both flanks, with Alba and Alves getting forward at every opportunity. Ten minutes in, Alves again put a tremendous ball across the six yard box and again, there was surprisingly nobody on the end of it.
Just after this, Alves again on the right, picked out Pedro but his header hit the side net, with Forster looking to have it covered in any case. Celtic then enjoyed a short spell of doing what Barca had done to them, retain the ball and let the opposition chase them! It was never going to last and just after the hour mark, Forster saved comfortably from a Messi shot some twenty yards from goal.
Alexis Sanchez conceded a foul on Lustig, just inside the Barcelona half. Ambrose floated the ball into the box and Valdes saved easily from Lustig’s header. With twenty five minutes left, a pivotal moment in the game was orchestrated once again from Messi. He rolled a perfectly weighted pass through for Sanchez, who fired a shot on target from close range. It was well saved by the big English keeper, who was also on hand to block the follow up, as Celtic once again got off the hook.
That proved to be the end of Sanchez’ contribution, as he made way for David Villa. There are not many clubs in football who can make substitutions of this magnitude! It was like for like in terms of attacking options, but was surprised that Vilanova never contemplated taking off Alex Song. Having been cautioned early in the first half, he continued to concede foul after foul, without any further punishment and Barca ran the risk of being a man down, as well as a goal down.
Tito must have heard me, as ten minutes later, Barca made a double change, with Cesc Fabregas replacing Song and Piqué coming on for Bartra. Celtic made a change of their own, which went almost unnoticed, when Tony Watt replaced Lustig. It meant a reshuffle, with Ambrose slotting into right back, Mulgrew dropping to centre half, Miku played deeper in the midfield, with Tony Watt given a free role to play off the last defender.
With fifteen minutes left, Iniesta tried his luck from distance, but his shot cleared the bar. As we entered the last ten minutes, there was a couple of minutes of extreme fantasy football. Ambrose conceded a cheap foul on Iniesta, some twenty two yards from goal. Messi took charge of the situation and took the kick himself. He got his shot up and over the wall, but it was comfortably saved by Forster.
The big ‘keeper then launched a kick up the field and Xavi, under no pressure, looked to have the ball under control, but he uncharacteristically swiped at fresh air, leaving Tony Watt to run in on goal. Despite the close attentions of Mascherano, Watt went on to bury his shot low into Valdes’ right hand post. Celtic Park erupted, you could feel the stand almost vibrate, as the fans dreamt the impossible and that they could actually win this game!
Five minutes later, the home side could have and maybe should have scored a third goal. Kris Commons, from his own penalty box cleared it long down field. With Barca chasing a goal, the only player back was Mascherano, who struggled to match Watt for pace. The young striker could almost see the whites of Valdes’ eyes and as he went to pull the trigger, he appeared to be caught by the Argentinean. Referee Kuipers decided there was no infringement and waved play on.
Barca continued to pour forward, but Ambrose and Mulgrew were resolute in their defending, but they failed to hold on until the end, as we entered the first of four minutes of stoppage time. Ten passes in the build up, culminated in a one-two in the box between Fabregas and Pedro, which resulted in the latter firing a low shot into Forster’s left hand post. The big ‘keeper did well to get down to the initial shot, but from the rebound, Messi buried it high into the net to reduce the deficit.
You began to wonder if Celtic could hold on for all three points, or was there an equaliser to come from the visitors. Commons and Miku did their best to run the clock down, by wasting time in the left hand corner. The only other significant action was again at the other end, when Pedro went down theatrically looking for a free kick just outside the box, but the referee played on and the ball ran out for a goal kick. As Forster hit it long up the park, seconds later it was all over, as Celtic claimed a result that nobody saw coming!
The fans celebrated like they had won the Champions League itself and why not. It is not often Scottish football can celebrate a momentous result like this. The celebrations continued down the stairs and on the streets, as we made our way back to the car.
Celtic Park has seen dramatic changes in the last two decades. From an old terraced ground which was in dire need of upgrading, it is now an enclosed, 60,000 all seated stadium and has gained a reputation for having one of the best atmospheres for big games, in the whole of Europe. For normal match days the crowd are a lot more subdued, with the corner which contains the ‘Green Brigade’, generating the only atmosphere for domestic home matches.
Renovation work to rebuild Celtic Park started in 1994, when new owner, Fergus McCann laid out details of his five year vision for the club. It meant that the team would have to play their home fixtures at Hampden Park for one season, but on their return for the summer of 1995, the Glasgow skyline now had the impressive North Stand, which could be seen from some distance. It also overhung the graveyard behind it, which caused some consternation with the City Council.
There was temporary seating put in behind the old West Stand area behind the goal during the 1995/96 season, while work began on what would be named, The Lisbon Lions Stand opposite. By 1998, the West Stand had been built too and would be given the name, The Jock Stein Stand. This completed the rebuilding work, though left the old South (Main) Stand looking very small in comparison. The only changes made to it were green seats put in, replacing the old discoloured orange ones. It also had a perspex roof fitted to allow sunlight in for the benefit of the pitch.
Celtic Park is an impressive venue, which has held a number of high profile matches, past and present. In its current form it has held music concerts, Cup Finals and International football. The facilities are decent and like most football grounds in the top league, they charge inflated prices for food that does not match a standard that offers value for your money.
Outside, there are a number of vendors selling unofficial merchandise, as well as a couple of club fanzines and various musicians busking.
The area surrounding the ground has seen massive changes take place over the last couple of years, with new housing and roads built, in what has been a complete overhaul of the East End. The new traffic infrastructure, which is being put in place for Glasgow to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, will most certainly alleviate dispersing the many thousand fans on a matchday.
Overall, it was a great night at Celtic Park and it was a privilege to have attended this particular game.