There were 93 minutes on the clock. They had ridden their luck, but a precious point was within their grasp. Despite the increasing siege on their goal, it looked as though they were about to secure one of the best results in their recent history. But in the blink of an eye, Jordi Alba stabbed home a Pedro cross and Celtic had lost to Barcelona in the Nou Camp in heartbreaking fashion.
It is still probably giving Neil Lennon nightmares, because the most unexpected of draws could have proved invaluable to Celtic’s hopes of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League. As it is, the return match takes place at Celtic Park on Wednesday with everything still to play for in a group that, Barcelona apart, looks as evenly matched as any that the tournament can offer this season.
The Bhoys were 18/1 to win in Catalunya two weeks ago – the starkest indication of how little they were fancied to get any kind of result against the superstars of Barca – and to come so close to snatching a draw was a remarkable effort from a team who are light years behind the Spaniards in every conceivable way.
But despite the devastating last-minute goal, Celtic are still well in contention to make the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Lennon’s men go into the clash with Barcelona in Glasgow in second position in Group G having taken four points from three games – one more than Spartak Moscow and three more than bottom side Benfica.
It couldn’t be more finely balanced, with Celtic having to negotiate a trip to Benfica as well as hosting Moscow on Matchday 6, so anything that they can get from Barca’s trip to Scotland would be the mother of all bonuses.
The bookies don’t rate their chances, though, with bwin giving a quote of 8/1 for Celtic to win on home soil, the draw at 5/1 and Barca at 7/25, and strange as it may seem given that they are now playing at home, it could well be that Celtic’s best chance of taking points from Barca came and went with Alba’s goal.
The gulf in class is so large it doesn’t need me to emphasise it and since the initial meeting two weeks ago, Celtic have stuttered badly. They immediately followed the loss in Spain with a dreadful 2-0 home defeat to Kilmarnock (the first time they had lost at home to Killie since 1957) and while a 5-0 victory over St. Johnstone in the Scottish League Cup seemed to get them back on track, Celtic were brought back down to earth again at the weekend with a disastrous finale to their game at Dundee United.
Winning 2-0 at Tannadice and cruising with just two minutes to go, Lennon’s side somehow let that lead slip and ended up drawing 2-2 – not the preparation you want when the best team in the world are coming to town just four days later.
Meanwhile, Tito Vilanova’s side have just carried on winning, scoring 11 goals while picking up La Liga victories against Rayo Vallecano and Celta Vigo and a cup win at Deportivo Alaves, and their away record is enough to make Celtic fans fear the worst, if they were not doing so already.
Barca have won all seven away fixtures they have played this season bar the Super Cup second leg against Real Madrid. That is seven games won by an aggregate of 24-6 and it is hard to see anything other than an away win here as well, especially in light of Celtic’s injury problems that make Georgios Samaras, Gary Hooper and James Forrest (among others) doubtful.
As ever when backing Barcelona, the key (and the difficulty) is on finding the value, as you don’t want to be on the 13/50 for an away win, even when accounting for their superiority.
So instead of that short price, I’ll take the slightly longer 3/4 on Barcelona scoring in both halves. That has happened in eight of their last ten matches, including the game with Celtic in Spain, and it looks a solid bet with Barca’s extra Champions League nous, not to mention class, sure to count in the end.