We all knew Barcelona would be hurting after their defeat to Deportivo Alavés at the weekend, that they would come out with all guns blazing on Tuesday night ready to prove a point. And prove a point they certainly did.
There has been a lot of talk the past couple of days about the embarrassment of Tuesday night’s drubbing. Some harsh words have been said regarding our place amongst Europe’s elite. Frankly though, there is no hiding from the facts, and Tuesday’s performance, if not the scoreline, was certainly embarrassing.
The biggest point of disappointment was the amateur defending (in all areas of the park) which led to Barcelona’s goals. Having faced Barca numerous times over the past few years we knew what to expect coming into this game. The problem was that this Barcelona side, led by the MSN front three, was like nothing we have ever faced before.
The way we let our hosts stroll past us though was appalling; by the midway stage of the 2nd half Barca didn’t have to be anywhere near their best to cut through Celtic’s defence.
The biggest concern, as has been pointed out by many in the media, continues to be the mentality of the Celtic side. Barcelona didn’t beat us 7-0 because of their brilliance, they beat us by 7 because we were in awe of their brilliance.
Simply put the players looked lost; mesmerised by the ability and technique on display in front of them.
I predicted Cristian Gamboa would come into the side to complete a back 5, and if I’m honest I was quite happy to see this pre-match, feeling this would create a narrow 3 in the middle of defence; with Tierney and Gamboa adding additional protection in the wide areas. This was not the case.
The obvious risk was in throwing a player into the biggest game of the season for their debut (think Jo Inge Berget in Warsaw), a player who hasn’t started a competitive club match since February.
Gamboa making his first appearance for his new club at the Camp Nou was a big mistake. As was the formation of 5 at the back.
A 3-5-2/5-3-2 could work for us in Europe. If, and it’s a big if, we had the midfield for it. Three central defenders who stay tight to each other, flanked by full backs willing to get up and down the park throughout the match can work. What they need is a strong, competitive, and composed midfield in front of them. Scott Brown was unlucky on Tuesday, he appeared to be playing in midfield on his own and was the one player willing to try and put his foot on the ball to make things happen. For the formation to work we needed two central players alongside Brown. Central players who were willing to press the Barcelona midfield high when they dictated possession. In Nir Bitton we certainly do not have a central player willing, or capable, to play the pressing game.
The disappointment of not completing the signing of a “marquee” central midfield was justified on Tuesday night. Besides Nir Bitton and Scott Brown our only central midfield (not central attacking midfield) players are academy graduates Henderson and McGregor. We simply don’t have the personnel in the middle of the park to have pulled off this formation – though perhaps the aforementioned, or the more attacking minded Stuart Armstrong or Tom Rogic, would have been more effective than Bitton.
Out wide we never stood a chance. Isolated and starved of possession it was a big ask for our wingers to contribute to the match. Scott Sinclair, however, showed plenty of promise in the early stages of the game, driving at the Barcelona defence at every (rare) opportunity. One positive from Tuesday night was that while Scott didn’t see anywhere near enough of the ball (along with his teammates), he did indicate he has the talent to compete at this level, provided we have the correct set up.
It has been said in some quarters that we have to accept the reality of modern football, that we simply cannot compete with the big guns; while in others it has been stated that Celtic should never accept defeat as a formality. Both are true. We cannot compete with Barcelona, it is as simple as that. But we can perform with the mindset that we are their match. That we will fight for every ball and not stand back and simply admire their ability. This Barcelona team is potentially the best I’ve ever seen. Let them play us off the park, show them the respect they deserve after the game, but during it treat them as our equal.
Changing the mentality amongst the squad at Celtic Park was never going to be an overnight fix. It’s one factor in a wider, long term project to lift ourselves on the European stage. Even then, we won’t be able to match the likes of Barcelona, but we will be able to compete for the ball and have belief in ourselves when we do regain possession. It’s a cliche in football for a manager of an underdog to bemoan the ease in which they allowed the favourite to dictate a game. But that cliche is precisely the feeling after Tuesday night – we had to do more to make Barca break sweat; to force them to be at their scintillating best.
The best way to describe our performance in the second half was that of shock. Simple 5 yard passes became an impossible task. It would have been like watching children facing a side of uncompromising adults – only we never displayed such energy or belief.
There is no shame in losing to the best, not even in being anhialated by them. The disappointment lies in the inability to handle the occasion. In effectively throwing in the towel, taking a step back, and applauding the opponent off the park.
Tuesday will have hurt the players; defeat is one thing, but records have now been broken for all the wrong reasons. The squad must learn from Tuesday and ensure they never have that feeling again. Losing is acceptable, despondency is not.
If we’re not up to the task mentally we could see more records broken over the next few months.
Barcelona may be from another planet to us, but Tuesday should be the last free ride.