As I chatted to the fans around me at half time during the recent St Johnstone match at Celtic Park the subject turned to the upcoming tie with Barcelona. A year ago I had asked the lady who sits behind me what she was expecting when Messi and co came calling. ‘A battering’ she replied. Of course it didn’t quite turn out that way as Celtic, inspired by that wonderful support and the weight of their historic anniversary pulled off one on the shocks of the season by beating the mighty Catalans. Few who attended that game will ever forget the atmosphere or spectacle. This time around she was again less than optimistic. ‘We’re not as strong as last year,’ she began ‘and Barca will have revenge in mind.’ There seemed to be a mood of realism among the fans I spoke to that Celtic’s real fight in this group will be with Ajax for third spot and the Europa League place. Anything we pick up against Milan or Barcelona will be a bonus. That isn’t having a lack of ambition. It’s accepting that while we can still pull of some incredible victories in Europe, especially at home, the gulf in finances, squad depth and quality can be a chasm at this level. Most fans, it seems, are approaching the ‘group of dignity’ in hope rather than expectation.
Barcelona recently paid £45m for Neymar and added him to a squad including Danny Alves, (£25m) Alexis, (£20m) Mascherano, (£18m) Fabergas (£26m) and Song. (£16m) When quality such as this is blended with players from their very effective youth set up such as Messi, Xavi, Pique, Puyol and Valdes, it’s plain to see this team represents a challenge of epic proportions for Celtic. They arrive in Glasgow with 5 wins out of 5 in La Liga and have of course beaten Ajax 4-0 in the Champions League opener. As part of the Neymar deal they played a useful Santos team and crushed the Brazilians 8-0. It’s going to take a coming together of certain circumstances for Celtic to beat this team. Barcelona were in town 11 months ago so Celtic Park holds no surprises for them. They have played there on 4 occasions since 2004 winning 2 (3-1 & 3-2) and losing 2. (0-1 and 1-2) The game in October will be a titanic task for Celtic and they’ll need the supporters to be patient and create that quintessentially Celtic atmosphere. If they don’t bring their A game we may have a chance but a repeat of the heroics of 2012 remains a long shot. Don’t discount the possibility of Celtic winning the match but temper such hopes with a realistic appraisal of the size of the task. Barca don’t defend too well at times but their midfield and attack remains among the best in world football.
Ajax, as many of you no doubt noticed, were thumped 4-0 by PSV Eindhoven this weekend. There has been a pattern of struggling away from home this season for the Amsterdam club. They have so far failed to win at AZ Alkmaar, (2-3) Herenveen, (3-3) FC Groningen, (1-1) PSV Eindhoven, (0-4) and of course Barcelona. (0-4) They have leaked a surprising amount of goals on their travels and this offers real hope to Celtic when they play Ajax at Celtic park on Match Day 3. It is vital Celtic win that game to set them up for the remaining ties in the group. Milan too, are certainly beatable at home and that game should be targeted as one we should take something from. They came to Celtic Park in 2008 as European Champions and lost to that late Scott McDonald goal. Justice was done on that occasion as the simulation for their ‘Penalty’ that night was in the ‘laughable’ category. Only one man in the stadium thought it was a penalty and unfortunately for Celtic he was the referee. A decent performance and a brave referee would give us some hope of taking something from that game.
I often say that Celtic’s targets each season should include qualification for the Champions League Group stages. Anything we achieve in the competition after that is a bonus. To come out of Pot 4 last season as the so called ‘weakest’ team and progress in a group containing Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow was an incredible achievement. It was built on solid home performances (2 wins and 1 draw) as well as picking up a win in Moscow. This season we are in what is without doubt the strongest group we have ever faced. I remain optimistic that we can progress although it may be to the Europa League. Enjoy the spectacle our fans create and the wonderful drama of the best club tournament on Earth. We may rely on UEFA President, Michel Plattini’s ‘Champions Route’ to help us get there as it means we avoid qualifiers with clubs such as Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk or Milan. But we are there on merit and players and fans of other clubs love to share in our unique Champions League atmosphere. So let’s rise to the occasion and roar out our songs of hope as Celtic joust with the giants of European football again. If Barcelona or anyone else wants to leave Celtic Park with anything, they’re going to have to earn it. We may not have the biggest budget or most talented players in Europe but we have all the heart and spirit in the world and the greatest fans you could ever ask for. We also have a togetherness forged by a common history of adversity and prejudice and this can make Celtic very dangerous opponents. Let’s give it 100% and see what happens sometimes, just sometimes, incredible things occur on our field of dreams and Walfrid’s team, as it has shown so often in the past, fears no one.