Thursday 22 February 2018

Cruel blow as Alba shatters Celtic dream

Barcelona 2
Celtic 1

Pete Jenson

Jordi Alba scored with almost the last kick of the match as Barcelona snatched a stirring comeback win at home to Neil Lennon's brave Celtic side.

The Scottish champions, who had never won in Spain in 12 previous attempts, took a shock 18th-minute lead at the Nou Camp through Giorgos Samaras when the Greek striker's header spun into the net off Javier Mascherano.

Barca dominated possession, but were struggling to penetrate the massed Celtic ranks until Andres Iniesta combined with Xavi and squeezed a shot just inside Fraser Forster's post in the 45th minute.

The favourites pressed as Celtic tired in the second half and after Forster twice denied Lionel Messi and David Villa hit the frame of the goal, full-back Alba popped up at the far post in the 94th minute to deflect Adriano's cross over the line.


A crestfallen Lennon (right) said: "I thought the team were magnificent.

"It is bittersweet really, it is hard to take losing the game in the manner in which we did, but I am so proud of the players. I think they gave the club and country a huge shot in the arm.

"There is a mixture of disappointment and anger that we didn't see it through to the end of the game.

"The players are hurting, they are angry, whatever you want to call it but it gave them a real a taste of playing in the Champions League at the highest level and they played fantastically well.

"No one gave us any hope, but I think we have won a lot of admirers. They were brave, I couldn't ask any more from them."

The Irishman continued: "You have to look at the three performances so far, we have done very well.

"There are three games to go so anything can happen.

"I don't think they will take a lot of picking up, they can take a lot of satisfaction from this performance.

"The next game is Barca at home and we have to be mindful of that. We don't want to go gung-ho, but we will have a big crowd and that will spur us on."

With an extra midfielder picked ahead of Kris Commons, Lennon looked to leave Barcelona with as little space as possible and it worked early on.

Their first real chance didn't come until the eighth minute when Messi's reverse pass sent Jordi Alba down the left and his cross went just beyond Pedro.

Messi was dispossessed by first Charlie Mulgrew and then Joe Ledley as Celtic made their presence felt in midfield where Alex Song had been picked to start ahead of Cesc Fabregas.

On 16 minutes Forster was called into action for the first time when Iniesta crossed from the left and Marc Barta's header was blocked by the English 'keeper, but from Celtic's next move they took the lead.

Alexis brought down Scott Brown and Mulgrew floated the free-kick to the edge of the six-yard box where Giorgos Samaras was poised.

The Greek failed to make meaningful contact, but it mattered not as Mascherano sent it past his own keeper to send Celtic's travelling support up in the gods of the Camp Nou, 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 five thousand or so Celtic fans 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.

The Celtic coach's animation was in stark contrast to the coach alongside him on the touchline. Tito Vilanova was as passive as his team who were playing none of their mesmerising football.

Adriano tried his luck from distance, but Forster, looking assured, got down to his near post to make the comfortable save.

On 34 minutes there were even cries of 'olé' from the Celtic fans as their team briefly kept possession in midfield with audacious ease.

Messi sent a free-kick just over Forster's bar after Kelvin Wilson had brought him down, but Celtic were by no means under siege and when Wanyama dispossessed Iniesta in midfield, only Gary Hooper's failure to control the ball enabled Barcelona to recover and deal with the danger.

As half-time approached it seemed Celtic would go down the tunnel comfortably ahead, but Barcelona's holy trinity struck just before the board showing two minutes of added time was shown.

Messi, Xavi and Iniesta swapped passes inside the penalty area with the latter slotting past Forster to level the score. Samaras had seconds earlier hobbled off to be replaced by James Forrest.

With their out ball no longer an option and the home side off the mark the odds were now stacked back in Barcelona's favour.

However, Forrest's direct running drew a foul from Alexis as Celtic started the second half brightly. The substitute then looked to have been brought down by Alba only for the linesman to keep his flag down.

There was still no sign of the expected Barcelona domination as again Adriano was forced to shoot from distance and again it caused Forster no problems.

Commons came on for Brown and raced away from Mascherano only for Bartra to scramble away his cross. Forster saved again from Messi and Iniesta and then produced his save of the night. It came at point-blank range from Messi after he had been played in on the edge of the six-yard box by Pedro.

A perfect Wilson tackle on the edge of the area further frustrated the Argentinian with the Nou Camp howling in vain for a penalty.

Celtic had taken four points from their first two games, so a point here would have given them a strong grip on the second qualifying place. How close they came. In the end, though, their tremendous rearguard action -- in large part thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Forster -- came to nought as Alba nicked his injury-time winner. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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