When Scottish Champions Celtic advanced past the group stage and into the knockout stage of the Champions League last season, everyone associated with the club pointed to their thrilling 2-1 victory over Barcelona at Parkhead. That victory, combined with a poor showing from Benfica ensured Celtic’s place in the knockout round. On Tuesday, Celtic and Barcelona will renew acquaintances at Celtic Park with the Hoops in need of a result.
Celtic lost their opening fixture in Europe to AC Milan, despite holding off the Italian’s side attacks for the majority of the match. Barcelona opened their European account with an easy win over Ajax Amsterdam. However, Barcelona won’t have superstar striker Lionel Messi in the lineup, as a thigh injury will keep the Argentine sidelined for the next two weeks.
Messi’s absence could give Celtic a boost as they won’t have to focus their defending around him, which in turn could give the Scottish side some attacking opportunities. Neil Lennon’s side lines up in a traditional 4-4-2 for the most part, that relies on strong positional play.
The imposing frame of Georgios Samaras could provide problems for the Barcelona back line. The 6-4, Greek International is lazy at times but when he’s engaged, he is a dangerous threat in the penalty area. Anthony Stokes is the crafty striker who can manoeuvre around defenders. The craftiness of Stokes compliments the power of Samaras perfectly.
The talismanic figure in the Celtic midfield is Kris Commons. The Scottish International is adept at creating and finishing scoring opportunities. Commons will have to be aware of the Barcelona midfield, so don’t be surprised if he plays a bit further back, to quell any counter-attack from Barcelona. Joe Ledley and James Forrest missed the weekend fixture against Kilmarnock, but both should be on the team sheet for Lennon on Tuesday. Scott Brown is the fortress in the centre of the pitch. Celtic’s captain will have the unenviable task of shutting down the passing lanes that the Barcelona midfield have such an easy time finding. Brown will have to be dogged to quell Barcelona’s tiki-taka approach.
The back four have surprised some for providing goals and joining the attack. Charlie Mulgrew is very adept from set pieces and can strike from anywhere within range of the goal. Adam Matthews can be used as a wing back and doesn’t mind going up the left flank in an attacking mode. Celtic could use Honduran International Emilio Izaguirre at left back as well. It is expected that Nigerian International Efe Ambrose and Dutch International Virgil van Dijk should be the centre backs. What Celtic need to realize is that whomever is playing the wing back spots, they can’t gamble on the attack, leaving the centre backs vulnerable. Even without Messi, Barcelona still have weapons at their disposal and they can strike with venom.
Keeper Fraser Forster was the man of the match when Celtic surprised Barcelona in last year’s fixture. While the Celtic keeper won’t have to contend with Messi, he will be very busy as Barcelona won’t stop attacking, even though Messi is missing.
With Messi out, the pressure will fall on Neymar to produce quality. The 21-year-old Brazilian sensation is a dynamic player who is still learning the pitfalls of European football. Neymar didn’t score against Ajax but delivered a beautiful cross for Gerard Pique to finish. Pedro and Alexis are expected to flank Neymar but manager Gerardo Martino does have options. Andreas Iniesta could move up to forward if need be. Cristian Tello could also see the pitch, even though he’s only appeared in one match so far this season.
If Iniesta does move up to forward, it would make room for Cesc Fabregas to make the team sheet. The former Arsenal man has been more often than not been the odd man out, but with lineup shuffling thanks to Messi’s injury, Fabregas could be a key figure in this fixture. One constant in the midfield is Xavi. The Spanish talisman is the true architect of the tiki-taka style that Barcelona as perfected. Expect Sergio Busquets to be the holding midfielder.
The back four should consist of Pique and Javier Mascherano as centre backs, while Dani Alves and Jordi Alba will be the wing backs. However, don’t be surprised if Adriano makes the team sheet. The versatile Brazilian can move up to midfield or stay in the back four.
Victor Valdes is pretty much a certainty between the sticks. Valdes isn’t the best keeper in the world, but has made the timely save when Barcelona has needed it.
This is an intriguing fixture. How will Barcelona fare without Messi? Will last year’s match have a lingering effect on the Blaugrana? Can Celtic repeat their most glorious victory last season? Can Neymar step up and become the star everyone expects him to be? Parkhead will be thundering with excitement and this will be a close match. Call it a hunch but Barcelona escapes with a 2-1 victory.
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