Tuesday 25 April 2017

Celtic plan 'more robust' approach to Barca beasts

Lionel Messi going through his paces at Celtic Park last night. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
Lionel Messi going through his paces at Celtic Park last night. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

Roddy Forsyth

Brendan Rodgers was brought to Celtic to restore their reputation as plausible participants on the European stage.

It was not surprising, therefore, that on the eve of the Hoops' Champions League home encounter with Barcelona, he grew irritated when the pre-match press conference took a turn for the fatuous.

The afternoon had already been trivialised by a question about Justin Bieber training with Barca when Rodgers was asked by a Spanish journalist if he thought that the existence of the Lake Ness Monster was more credible than the notion of Lionel Messi being human.

"That," said Rodgers incredulously, "is the worst question I have ever been asked."

If only his players could say the same. Instead, they need only look back to September 13 when they could not respond to Barca's relentless interrogation of their character and guile at the Nou Camp and were monstered in a 7-0 defeat which went into the record books as Celtic's worst defeat in European competition.

It was difficult to dismiss the impression that, amongst the media pack who accompanied the Catalan giants to Glasgow, there were those who regarded Celtic as a novelty act, lodged as they are at the foot of Group C.

Brendan Rodgers has plenty to think about. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Brendan Rodgers has plenty to think about. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Concession

If that should be so, it disregards the progress made by Rodgers since the opening round of fixtures.

Celtic's goal concession rate has dropped from seven to three, two and one in consecutive matches and at home to Manchester City and away to Borussia Monchengladbach they have matched their opponents, 3-3 and 1-1 respectively.

In the remaining matches against Barca and away to City, Celtic must achieve at least one win and hope that Gladbach lose their two meetings with the same opponents.

In the unlikely event of Celtic gaining three points from one or other of their fixtures, the Bundesliga side would require only a draw to edge the Parkhead side out of the consolation place in the Europa League.

Given that Celtic last achieved a clean sheet in the Champions League group stage as long ago as September 2012 and that 17 fruitless attempts to repeat the feat have come and gone since then, it can be argued that a greater emphasis on defence would yield more reward.

In fact, the evidence is that constructing a defence capable of confining damage at this level is the greatest challenge facing Rodgers, but he was not inclined to dwell on the possibility, perhaps because his deployment of five at the back in the Nou Camp had not stemmed Barca's remorseless attacking flow. "I don't worry about that. For me it's about performing," he said. "You keep a clean sheet, brilliant - but my idea is always to go and win a game and obviously be really super solid if we can.

"Monchengladbach is a team with nearly five times the budget of Celtic, so they are not going to come and just not be a problem for you, but I don't worry about it. You want to defend in every game you play.

"Domestically in the last seven games we haven't conceded but you're talking about a different level all together here and you have to respect that.

"As long as you can perform and look to get results, if you concede a goal you concede a goal.

"We don't want to, we don't like to but if it happens you have to have the response to go and score a goal.

"I was bitterly disappointed how easily we conceded the goals (in the Nou Camp).

"I think two months down the line we're a better team. We had to grow mentally and we've shown we've done that.

"They (Barca) will probably have more possession of the ball but as individuals and collectively I'd like to think we'll be much harder and more robust to play against this time."

Celtic have engaged in three Champions League group stage campaigns in recent years - in 2012, 2013 and this season - and, remarkably, Barcelona have featured each time.

The aggregate score is 17-4 in the Catalans' favour but the cluster of meetings includes Celtic's legendary 2-1 home victory four years ago, an indelible memory for the Hoops support.

Rodgers, though, has invited his players to draw inspiration from their response to their battering in Spain, the draw with Manchester City in the next fixture.

"Everyone thought they would come and streamroller us, a team that had won 10 out of 10 games and from the most competitive league in the world," he said.

"Everything was firing for them but they came here and arguably we actually changed the fortune of all the teams who have played against Manchester City since then, because after that they lost to Tottenham and went on a run of six games where they didn't win.

"My players maybe created something for others to look at, in terms of how they played the game that night.

"What I take a great pride in on these occasions is when I come out and I look around me and I see the players lining up and seeing the staff wondering where the noise is coming from, because you can hardly hear the music.

"We can't live in the past. That's here as motivation and inspiration, but we have to create our own memories and I think the current squad, in my time here, have shown that."

Barcelona, meanwhile, will have Lionel Messi on board tonight after he overcame a sickness bug to make the trip to Glasgow.

Messi missed Barca's goalless home draw against Malaga on Saturday through illness but was back in training on Monday.

Better news for Rodgers is that veteran midfielder Andres Iniesta has not made the trip.

He is ruled out of the game through injury, along with Samuel Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu, but Gerard Pique, who was doubtful, is in the squad.

Parkhead has been something of a mixed bag for the Catalan giants in recent visits, having made the trip through Glasgow's east end six times in competitive European competition.

Last time out a goal by Cesc Fabregas was enough to give the Spaniards all three points in the Champions League group stages in 2013. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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