Celtic were nearly as good as Barcelona for much of their Champions League matchup at Celtic Park on Wednesday. They weren’t in the same universe as Lionel Messi, however.
The Argentine’s brace was the difference in Barcelona’s 2-0 win in Group C play. Celtic created a number of excellent chances and stood toe-to-toe with Barcelona throughout the match, but they simply didn’t have a counter to Messi’s brilliance.
Barcelona were the better team, controlling 63 percent of possession and outshooting Celtic 10-6 (4-3 on goal), according to WhoScored.com. Still, Celtic will likely lament opportunities left lacking.
The win, coupled with Manchester City’s draw, clinched the group for Barcelona. Meanwhile, Celtic’s already slim chances of advancing to the knockout phase were extinguished.
Celtic may have looked up to the tall task of giving the Catalans a run for their money in the early portions of the game, but it was Messi who struck first and, as usual, in style.
In the 24th minute, Neymar lifted a threatening ball over the Celtic defense to a sprinting Messi down the left side of the box. From a tight angle, the Argentine let rip a scalding half-volley that caromed off the bar and found its way into the net, beating Craig Gordon on his near post.
Indeed, it was another otherworldly effort from Messi in a career already full of poetic goals and stunning achievements. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, it brought him up to an incredible number of tallies in the UCL group stage
Morgan had some semblance of revenge in the 41st minute, however, making a lunging, right-handed save on Suarez’s free header after Messi found him streaking in the box with a perfect cross.
Celtic had their opportunities, namely on the counter, but couldn’t capitalize, and the game went into halftime 1-0 in favor of Barca.
The underdogs again were on the front foot to start the second half but again couldn’t execute several excellent opportunities on goal. Moussa Dembele had a brilliant chance at a free header in the 53rd minute, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved his attempt with little drama.
And much as it did in the first half, failing to capitalize on those opportunities quickly came back to haunt Celtic.
Just two minutes after Dembele’s attempt, Suarez was fouled in the box and Barca earned a penalty. Messi stepped up to the spot and calmly made it 2-0 for Barcelona, all but putting the game on ice.
The penalty itself was up for debate, though football writer Tony Barrett thought it was a clear foul.
The teams traded a few chances down the stretch, with Suarez most notably hitting the post with a shot in the 83rd minute, but Celtic couldn’t draw closer and Barca didn’t widen their lead.
The Catalans will next face a tough Borussia Monchengladbach team on Dec. 6, while Celtic will take on Manchester City that same day to close the Champions League group stage.
After the contest, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique wasn’t surprised that Celtic were up for a fight.
“It was a game that we expected,” he said, per the team’s official Twitter account. “In one of the toughest groups, we have come top. I have to congratulate the team.”
Fullback Jordi Alba concurred.
“It was a tight game at a great venue,” he noted. “It was important to win and we have done that.”
It was a slightly different tune from Celtic, though manager Brendan Rodgers was pleased with his team’s effort.
“As a coach you are looking for improvement and I felt we made significant improvement,” he said, per Celtic’s Twitter account, adding: “How we pressed the game tactically was very good. Won the ball back in high areas and when we couldn’t we were defensively solid.”
He continued by saying that he was very pleased with the team’s performance, though he didn’t agree with the penalty decision:
Certainly, Celtic can take confidence from the showing, though they’ll have to translate that into league play, as their hopes of advancing in the UCL ended on Wednesday.
For Barcelona, meanwhile, the day’s results mean their final contest in the group stage is meaningless, allowing Enrique the option to rest many of his starters if he’s so inclined.