Well, if Rangers aren’t going to be around to have a humdinger of a battle every couple of months or so, then facing Barcelona in the Champions League is quite the replacement, isn’t it?
When Celtic manager Neil Lennon set out at the start of the season to make the Champions League his main focus, a trip to the Camp Nou was exactly the sort of tie he dreamed of and as the Bhoys travel to Catalunya on Tuesday to face Lionel Messi and company, the Glasgow giants’ season is going from strength to strength.
Unusually, that includes campaigns both domestically and in Europe. They are expected to be on top of the table at home, especially without their arch-rivals in the Scottish Premier League, but it has been several seasons since Celtic gave a good account of themselves on the continent and so far 2012/13 is turning into a very good European adventure.
After successfully negotiating two qualifying rounds, Celtic have given themselves a platform to have a real go at getting through the group stages and into the knock-out rounds for only the second time in their history and the first time since Gordon Strachan was in charge in 2008.
A respectable home draw against Portuguese side Benfica was followed by a fantastic 3-2 win away at Spartak Moscow which leaves Celtic on four points and second in the table in Group G.
Second is about as good as Celtic can hope for given that Barcelona ought to have the section sewn up, but finishing runners-up to Barca would be a superb achievement and one that remains possible.
In getting four points from the first six available, Celtic can go to the Camp Nou in relaxed mood, knowing that even two defeats in the forthcoming double header against the Catalans does not spell the end of their bid to make the last 16.
According to bwin, it’s a good job they don’t need a result because the odds say they have no chance of getting one. Celtic are 18/1 to claim what would surely be the best result in their recent history, with the draw at a massive 10/1 and Barca the incredibly strong favourites at 2/25.
Of course, for all I have talked up Celtic’s great start to the season, the gulf in class between the sides is huge and Barcelona remain the benchmark in European football, certainly for the style of play and the sheer attacking prowess they possess – I don’t need to state the obvious about Messi, yet another hat-trick in the weekend win over Deportivo La Coruna speaks for itself.
Tito Vilanova’s side are top of La Liga (on goal difference from Atletico Madrid) with seven wins and a draw (against Real Madrid) from eight matches and their home record underlines exactly why they are so short to win.
Barcelona have lost just one of the last 41 home games in La Liga and you have to go back to October 2009 for the last time they were beaten on their own ground in the Champions League – a run of 18 games.
But you aren’t going to get rich from backing Barca – even a home win with over 3.5 goals is priced up at a terribly short 18/25 – which means the value is with Celtic and even if an away win is fanciful despite their improvement on the road in Europe, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Bhoys can get on the scoresheet and at 23/20 that is my play here.
Celtic are in good form, winning six consecutive games since that goalless draw against Benfica, and have scored 17 goals in the process.
Okay, putting five past St Mirren as they did at the weekend is not the same as going to the Camp Nou, but Barca are not watertight by any stretch and Celtic can grab a goal. Messi might have hogged the headlines with another masterclass against Depor, but Barca conceded four goals at the Riazor and while it is always handy to score five if you’re going to let in four, it is proof that they are not what they could be defensively.
Vilanova’s side have conceded 11 league goals – only seven sides in Spain’s top flight have let in more – and Barca are struggling to keep clean sheets while having to rely on Javier Macherano and Alex Song as makeshift defenders. Only twice in 12 games in all competitions this season have Barca shut the opposition out and they have kept just two clean sheets in their last 11 home games in the Champions League.
They came against BATE and Viktoria Plzen and having hit seven goals in three European trips, Celtic can at least get on the scoresheet, even if a win seems beyond their capabilities.