Neil Lennon finds solace in heroic Hoops efforts
Published 25/10/2012 | 05:00
If Jordi Alba's last-gasp winner in Tuesday's Champions League clash in the Nou Camp provided an operatic finale, the dry statistics of Uefa's analysis of the contest also yield a compelling tale.
In the first half, which ended at 1-1, there was an almost exact parity of effort between Barcelona and Celtic in terms of ground covered.
In fact, Celtic's outfield players just edged the amount of distance run, with a combined total of 52,962 metres to Barcelona's 52,948. The astonishing difference between the pair is registered in the statistic for ball retention in the first 45 minutes -- Barca had 75pc of possession.
To put it another way, of the 53 kilometres run by Celtic's outfield players, three-quarters consisted of covering, tracking or running fruitlessly after Barcelona players as they performed their mesmerising tiki-taka.
Neil Lennon's players, of course, are only the latest team to have come up against the tactics perfected on Barca's training ground where the rondo -- piggy in the middle -- is the central, indispensable exercise.
Over the whole game, Barcelona attempted 996 passes to Celtic's 337 and the ratio of completed passes was 883 to 182.
The disparity of pressure in the danger areas was even greater, with 114 deliveries or solo runs into Celtic's defensive area, against 17 at the other end of the field and 32 breaks into the Hoops penalty box compared to four into Victor Valdes' area.
On the other hand, the joy and the pain of football is that all the effort and every analysis is, in the end, reduced to the simple fact of who scores more goals. In that respect, Celtic returned to Glasgow in the early hours of yesterday, bruised in flesh, but not battered in spirit.
Certainly, the hurt sustained by coming so close to achieving a remarkable result only to have it snatched from their grasp in the final few seconds of stoppage-time was etched on the features of the players and coaching staff. Lennon himself mingled frustration and admiration.
"It is so, so hard to take, especially to have got so close to a result that would have done us a right turn in the group," said the manager. "But then, Barcelona are just magnificent and many other big teams have crumpled under that sort of pressure.
"We didn't and once our players shake off the disappointment they'll be able to hold their heads up, not just about that performance, but about the way they have come on in Europe this season. We've now played seven games, won five, drawn one and lost one.
"We've won in Helsinki, Helsingborg and Moscow and only lost to Barcelona with the last kick of the ball in the Nou Camp. They're a young group of players, but they work immensely hard for one another and they learn fast -- you can see that when you look at their progress from the Europa League last season to this.
"They know it's going to be another hugely difficult game when Barca come to Celtic Park and we can't just go gung-ho and all out against them -- there's no question of that, or they'll just pick you off -- but the players have earned respect for their discipline and the way they stuck to a hard task."
Lennon has yet again enhanced his reputation as a coach and motivator and if he needs a sideline, he can always open a fairground stall as a fortune teller.
Having predicted that Georgios Samaras would be the most likely threat to Barcelona and that a set-piece would be the means of delivery, he saw the Greek striker put Celtic ahead from a Charlie Mulgrew free-kick after 17 minutes.
The manager also prefigured Alba's decisive intervention -- at the end of four minutes of added-time, with the score at 1-1 after Andres Iniesta's 45th-minute equaliser -- when he said beforehand that his players would have to be "totally focused for 93 or 94 minutes."
Afterwards Lennon remarked that Fraser Forster was sore about conceding the late winner -- "particularly after his performance" -- a reference to the sequence of outstanding saves, including two from Lionel Messi -- produced by the goalkeeper who was called up to the England squad for the first time last month.
"We defended so well for 93 and a half minutes, but then we were punished from one cross at the end. Everyone was just gutted. You can make as many saves as you want, but you need the result at the end of the game and we didn't get that," said Forster.
"To be playing against a guy of Messi's quality is just unbelievable. To make saves from him was great, but I'd swap it all for a point."
Alba paid Forster a compliment when he said: "We had possession almost all the time and the key was that Celtic were very good defensively and didn't leave us any space.
"The goal came after the 90 minutes were up, but it really could have come much earlier because their 'keeper was absolutely phenomenal -- we had to show a great deal of patience because of him."
Celtic remain second in Group G and, while that might change for the worse after their rematch with Barca, they are in a healthy position to ensure European football after Christmas.
Although Spartak are now a point behind, after their win over Benfica -- who are bottom with a point -- Lennon's men won in Moscow, which would favour them should they finish level with the Russians.
And that itself -- given that Celtic were fourth seeds when the group draw was made -- represents a tangible advancement. (© Daily Telegraph, London)