Spanish football expert Graham Hunter previews the Champions League game between Celtic and Barcelona at Parkhead on November 7
The scouts and coaches who prepare to play FC Barcelona usually tear their hair out with tactical questions. To attack, to press, to hold a high line, to defend if they grab a lead, to play one up front, to use wingers to crowd out Barca’s marauding full backs, to double-mark Lionel Messi – it’s a never-ending list.
This time, however, there are two over-riding messages which Neil Lennon will need his troops to assimilate, understand and apply.
- Don’t give the ball away
- Keep your guard up late in the match
Why? Well, allow me to explain.
When Tito Vilanova’s side won 3-1 at home to Celta Vigo at the weekend they registered what is, statistically at least, their best-ever start to a Liga season. That’s one hell of a stat.
But, honestly, they are performing at about 80% of capacity – conceding quite a high number of home goals, having to fight back from a deficit five times in all competitions and only occasionally flaring into their luminous, brilliant best.
However, what is blindingly obvious that is that even when their form is being dragged down by constant injuries (Piqué, Puyol, Alves, Adriano, Alexis and Iniesta are all examples this season) the winning mentality this season is that of a bare-knuckle boxer.
So far this term Barca have scored 47 times in all competitions – of those, a remarkable 18 have been scored in the last 20 minutes of matches, whether they are losing, drawing or winning. That’s 38% of all goals this season notched when other teams are easing down mentally and physically.
Better still, 12 of those goals have come in the last 10 minutes – the late, late show when Jordi Alba dashed the hopes of Neil Lennon’s team at the Camp Nou wasn’t a fluke. And to those of us who watch them regularly it wasn’t a particular surprise either.
Chew on this: on the last two Barca visits to Parkhead Barca have scored three times in each game and of the six goals, three have come in the last quarter of an hour.
Wanyama highlights Barca danger
Most people are of the old cliche — glass half-full, glass half-empty life view. So some will ask if it’s a failing of Barca’s to need so many late goals and, perhaps, when you ally the tendency to the fact that the world champions have trailed this season to Celtic, Spartak, Osasuna, Sevilla and Real Madrid before coming back to win each of those games it’s true that they aren’t defending brilliantly.
However, if you accept that what it stems from is an unquenchable thirst to be scoring goals irrespective of how the match stands and accept that it’s an indication of Barca’s mental and physical toughness then, net, this tendancy is a positive.
So is their capacity to sieze upon mistakes. I spent last Monday talking at great length with Celtic’s midfielder Victor Wanyama. He’s only 21 and, with his brother, only the second Kenyan to play in the Champions League. He’s already in the top three Celtic players this season and has an increased chance of wreaking havoc given that the organiser of Barca’s midfield, Sergio Busquets, is absent.
What did Wanyama learn about playing Barca two weeks ago before he swapped shirts with Andres Iniesta?
The fact is that we have to give the ball away much less than we did. Great teams are just waiting for one error, one gift of possession and then they take advantage.
Barca boosted by Pique return
Whether Neil Lennon chooses to replicate two of the great Champions League performances under Gordon Strachan (beating Milan 2-1 and Manchester United 1-0) by playing cautiously and then converting clinically when the slightest chance emerges or chooses to try to run Barca off their feet it’s crucial Celtic are almost flawless when they have the ball, not just when they are defending.
For the visitors it’s clearly a boost Gerard Piqué is back, altough I know he feels he’ll be touch-and-go for this match after nearly one month out.
Equally the fact that the kick on the knee which Leo Messi took late in the Celta victory hasn’t ruled him out is a major factor in betting that Barca will impose themselves and win.
Are they invulnerable? No way. But do they bring a bagful of tricks and a habit of pulling off final flourishes under pressure? Yes, definitely.
Stand by for a big match and don’t, whatever you do, blink when the clock is ticking towards the 90th minute.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight on La Liga can regularly be seen and heard on TV and radio. He also writes for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football. Follow Graham on twitter here.