Fraser Forster's heroics hold Barcelona but Jordi Alba breaks Celtic hearts
Neil Lennon’s 'magnificent' men cruelly denied at the death
Barcelona 2 Celtic 1: So much for the death of Scottish football and the dearth of English goalkeepers. Celtic matched Barcelona for 93 minutes here last night and their Hexham born goalkeeper was their star player – just a shame that some games go into a 94th minute.
With Fraser Forster batting away everything that Lionel Messi and company could throw at him and central defenders Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson outstanding in front of their goalkeeper, it looked as though Celtic would take a deserved point back to Scotland. However, with their last attack and from closer to Forster's goal than they had managed to get all night left-back Jordi Alba forced in the winner for Barça.
Celtic were given no chance when they were drawn with Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and Benfica in their group but they were seconds from sitting pretty in second place, two points clear of third, until the heartbreaking finish that now leaves them just one point above Spartak Moscow whom they play at home in the last game.
"I don't take too much notice of the comments," said Lennon of those that dismissed his side as Group G whipping boys. "Most of them are born out of ignorance. We are used to playing to win in every single game we play. The team was magnificent tonight; I'm so proud of the players. They have given the club and the country a huge shot in the arm. They were playing against the best players in the world but never panicked. We were compact and caused them problems on the break. We leave with our reputation very much intact."
It was, for all but that last fateful Barcelona attack, the perfect "underdogs away in Europe" performance. In midfield Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Brown snapped into challenges while Victor Wanyama's long stride was always on hand to turn defence quickly into attack. The visitors defended intelligently but attacked with purpose too and stunned their hosts by taking the lead in the 18th minute.
Alexis Sanchez brought down Brown and Mulgrew floated the free-kick to the edge of the six-yard box where Georgios Samaras was poised. The Greek forward failed to make meaningful contact but it mattered not as Javier Mascherano sent it past his own keeper to send Celtic's travelling support up in the gods of the Nou Camp, and Lennon inside his technical area, into raptures.
Barcelona's Achilles heel of defending set-pieces had been exposed again, and they had also scored their fourth own goal of the season.
Those 5,000 or so supporters were soon doing "the Poznan". Lennon, with his fingers to his temples, was sending out the clear message to his players – we have the lead; now let's use our heads and keep it.
Ten minutes before half time there were even cries of "Olé" from the Celtic fans as their team briefly kept possession in midfield with audacious ease, but on the stroke of half time the Holy Trinity struck to level. Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta swapped passes inside a penalty area packed with green-and-white shirts and the latter beat Forster to level the score.
Samaras had seconds earlier hobbled off to be replaced by James Forrest. So with their favoured out-ball no longer an option it seemed Celtic might have their backs even closer to the wall in the second half. But the substitute's direct running created a threat on the counter-attack and Forster continued his heroics at the other end.
He saved at point-blank range from Messi after he had been played in on the edge of the six-yard box by Pedro and then superbly turned the Argentine's header away for a corner after Iniesta had flipped the ball over the Celtic defence.
When substitute David Villa came on for Barcelona and hit a post at the death it seemed Celtic would take a point but then Alba scored the winner from an Adriano cross.
"Everyone says it must be fantastic to go to the Nou Camp but when you are at ground level it is not so much fun," said Lennon. "It's a bittersweet feeling.
"We will have a big crowd supporting us when they come to us in two weeks' time and our home form is as good as anyone's."
Booked: Barcelona - Mascherano, Adriano. Celtic - Forrest.
Man of the match: Fraser Forster
Possession: Barcelona 72%. Celtic 28%.
Attempts on target: Barcelona 16. Celtic 2.
Referee: G Rocchi (It).