Barcelona secured first place in Group C thanks to a brace from the star of the show, Lionel Messi, and an assist from Borussia Mönchengladbach who prevented Manchester City from keeping pace with the Catalan club.
Luis Enrique offered no surprises in the starting lineup, fielding an expected eleven at Celtic Park. Messi and Jordi Alba returned to the starting lineup after stints on the sidelines, while Luis Suarez returned after missing Barcelona’s last game due to suspension. In midfield, Andre Gomes received the call ahead of Denis Suarez who started the last Barcelona game.
The Catalans started the match in very cautious fashion, expecting a very high line from Celtic. The Scots also wasted no time in getting a few good hacks on Barcelona players. With the high press, Barcelona’s play development oftentimes looked slow, even too predictable as the Scots several times easily disposed the Catalans in the early going. But despite Celtic’s early success on the pitch they couldn’t create much in terms of scoring chances.
Barcelona on the other hand needed quite some time to get anywhere near Craig Gordon’s goal, but when they did in was immediately very dangerous. In quick succession near the ten minute mark Messi had two opportunities to score the opener, first through a Neymar run down the left side, then after a lovely through ball from Sergio Busquets, but on neither occasion could the Argentine test the Scottish goalkeeper.
Barcelona slowly started to assert their domination on the pitch as time went on, and around the 20th minute Barcelona were in full control and creating chances seemingly every minutes. First, in the 19th, after a long build up, Alba crossed the ball into the danger area where Ivan Rakitić rose the highest. His header looked perfect for a Messi tap in, but Messi couldn’t get good enough contact on the ball to direct it on goal.
The next chance for the Catalan club came in the 22nd minute after a corner kick. Neymar crossed the ball to the near post where Gomes showed good ingenuity, flicking the ball on goal first-time, forcing a good save from Gordon. Two minutes later, Barcelona were again in the penalty area, but this time they were able to finish the play off with a goal. It all started with a poor cross from the right side that found Alba deep, who wasted no time, pushing to ball further to the left to Neymar. The Brazilian brilliantly spotted the onrushing Messi and found him with a stunning over the top ball right onto the left foot of Messi who beat Gordon in off the near post with a first-time shot.
After conceding, Celtic returned their very aggressive, full-pitch press displayed in the opening 15 minutes. Barcelona again struggled in play-creation facing defenders inside Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s penalty area. Despite causing Barcelona all kinds of problems, Celtic also couldn’t a whole lot. In fact, their first shot on target didn’t come until the 36th minute when Moussa Dembélé made Gerard Pique look foolish, but the Frenchman couldn’t beat ter Stegen to the far side as the young German made a strong save.
Barcelona made numerous mistakes in possession while Celtic were buzzing deep in the Catalan third, but with Dembélé often being effectively cut off by Javier Mascherano, the Scots weren’t dangerous from up close and they also weren’t firing any shots from distance. Even though Barça wasn’t at all dangerous in the second part of the half, they still came very close to going into the break up 2-0. Messi dribbled past the defender on the right and sent a perfect ball in front, right onto the head of Suarez who looked destined to score, but Gordon reached out with his right hand and prevented the celebrations.
The second half started with a solitary substitution - on the home side, as James Forrest replaced Scott Sinclair who picked up a knock late in the first half. Celtic came storming out of the gate, again pressing deep in the Barcelona area, but this time creating a couple good chances early, but neither of them managed to beat ter Stegen. The first one was blocked by Mascherano while the second situation was defused by the safe hands of the Barcelona goalkeeper.
Celtic’s best chance came in the 53rd minute when both Barcelona center-backs forgot about Dembélé. Dembélé was left all alone eight yards from goal, and with a perfect cross coming from the left side an equalizer was really the only possible outcome, but ter Stegen stayed calm and Dembélé didn’t get the best header off, and Barcelona remained in the lead.
The visitors quickly made Celtic pay for the miss as on the very next attack Sergi Roberto found Suarez in the area who was wrestled to the ground for a penalty kick by Emilio Izaguirre. Messi took responsibility for the kick and calmly sent a low ball right down the middle, out of reach of Gordon’s legs who dove to his left. A few moments later, Suarez struck the post from a very difficult position, but even had he scored it wouldn’t have counted as the play was whistled dead for offside.
Lucho made his first substitution of the match in the 65th minute. Jordi Alba, not fit enough for a 90 minute encounter, was replaced by Lucas Digne. The Frenchman became quickly involved in Barcelona’s attacking game as he led a counter attack in the 68th minute that, after a key pass from Neymar, almost ended with another Messi hat-trick against Celtic, but the Argentine just missed the target.
Neymar, who made numerous important passes throughout the game, couldn’t get out of his skin after getting tangled up with Mikael Lustig on a couple occasions. As time went on, things started to heat up between the two of them and in the 71st minute both picked up a yellow card, resulting in Neymar missing the last Group Stage match due to yellow card accumulation.
The very next minute Pique was subbed off and was replaced by Marlon Santos. The occasion marked Marlon’s Barcelona debut. Four minutes later, Lucho completed his final player change, taking off the flared up Neymar and replaced him with Arda Turan.
Tensions calmed after the Neymar substitution and it appeared that Celtic also accepted their fate. While Celtic’s aggressive tackling remained, their full-pitch press started to slow down and Barcelona were able to hold on to the ball for most of the remaining time. The visitors also created an excellent chance in the 82nd minute that should’ve been the final nail in the proverbial coffin, but somehow, after being unselfishly set-up by Messi, an uncovered Suarez only managed to hit the outside of the post.
Without much fuss, Barcelona managed to bring the match to a winning end. The only noteworthy moment came in the 88th minute when Rakitić picked up a yellow card that will force him to miss the game against Borussia Mönchengladbach. But because Borussia managed to hold Manchester City to a draw in the other Group C match, Barcelona already secured first place in the group and will likely play the last group match without some of their stars.
Now it’s back to La Liga for Barcelona where they will look to put their disappointing draw against Malaga in the rear-view mirror. It will be far from easy though as Barcelona travel to the historically difficult venue that is Anoeta where they will take on Real Sociedad.