Scan through the pages of our personalised Celtic book and, in between the fifty plus league championships, one indelible idea rings true: big European nights are always special at Celtic Park. After becoming the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, the Hoops have, in more recent times, developed a reputation as a team capable of upsetting the odds, even when the Goliath to their David is arguably the most respected group of players in the history of club football.
Take the Ball, Pass the Ball
Celtic could well have been forgiven for being intimidated at the prospect of welcoming Barcelona to Celtic Park on 7th November 2012; the Catalonians, spearheaded by the world’s best player Lionel Messi, had won the Champions League three times in the previous seven years, and were also the team to eliminate the Hoops from the competition the last time they had reached the knockout phase, back in 2008.
In addition to the obvious difficulties facing them, Neil Lennon’s team were also experiencing a dip in form, dropping points in their last match at Dundee United, and losing 2-0 to Kilmarnock in their last outing at Parkhead. And, two weeks earlier, in the figurative return fixture, the side had seen a hard-fought, potentially crucial point away at the Nou Camp snatched from them in the 94th minute, courtesy of a rare Jordi Alba goal. The strike had solidified Barca’s 100% record at the halfway point in Group G, and left Celtic in a three-way battle for second spot with Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
“Wan to Saviour”
The atmosphere at Celtic Park as the two sides walked out, ignited by a 59,000-strong crowd, would certainly have filled the Parkhead faithful with some confidence, even in the absence of talisman captain Scott Brown, missing the tie due to an unfortunate stomach bug. Proof already, before a ball was even kicked, that, domestic league imbalances aside, Glasgow’s East End remains one of the most formidable places to visit when European night comes around.
Celtic rode the wave provided by the Tims from minute one, and it wasn’t long before their enterprise was converted; Victor Wanyama, described on the night by the Daily Record’s Keith Jackson as “nothing short of immense”, leaping highest to head home a Charlie Mulgrew corner. What may have been Barcelona’s only weakness – defending set-pieces – had been fully exploited by the Scots.
“The Best Night of His Career”
Unsurprisingly, the goal shook the late Tito Vilanova’s men into action. Twice before half-time, Barcelona were denied what would have been a well-deserved equaliser by the woodwork: first Messi rattled the crossbar after an exquisite one-two with Andrés Iniesta, and then Alexis Sanchez’s header, easily beating Celtic keeper Fraser Forster, rebounded back off the foot of the post. Celtic, by hook or by crook, would make it to the break with their advantage still intact.
After the restart, Barca really turned on the style with a combination of total football and tiki-taka; by the end of the night, the Spaniards had registered fourteen shots on target, which in itself is a testament to the incredible second-half performance of Fraser Forster. The 6’7” Englishman would deny the bustling Messi on multiple occasions, either side of an impressive double-save to keep out Alexis Sanchez.
“A Fabulous, Picture-Book Finish”
As Barcelona continued to turn the screw, throwing bodies forward left, right and centre, the stage was set for a Celtic counter attack. Step forward eighteen-year-old Tony Watt, on as a substitute for his Champions League debut. With less than ten minutes to go, a long Forster punt downfield was uncharacteristically misjudged by Barcelona’s skipper Xavi, allowing Watt a clean run on Victor Valdés’s goal. The new Bhoy on the block slotted home with the confidence of a man far beyond his years, sending the stadium into raptures.
Barcelona would eventually find a way past Forster; after some intricate passing culminating in a shot from Pedro brought yet another save out of the Celtic keeper, Lionel Messi pounced and converted the rebound. But the goal would prove to be a mere consolation, as Celtic held on for an historic European scalp the day after the club’s 125th birthday. A win that, to anyone who witnessed it, was less a fluke and more an affirmation of the team’s ability to go toe-to-toe with the best around, as Jackson’s Record article summed up:
It would be grossly unfair on Neil Lennon and his players to describe this victory as some kind of freakish happening. Once, perhaps. But to take Barcelona to the limits twice in two weeks? To trade blows with the baddest men on the football planet and come away from it all absolutely all square after two legs? That’s no accident.
A win over Spartak Moscow a month later secured Lennon’s men a place in the last 16 of the Champions League for only the third time since the competition’s rebranding in 1992.
Unfortunately for Celtic, they were drawn against Italian champions Juventus, who had gone unbeaten on the way to topping their own group. The Old Lady proved too much for the Bhoys in the end, but Celtic v Barcelona 2012 remains in the forefront of the memory as one of the greatest nights at Parkhead this century, a night when Celtic took on the most successful team of the last decade and came out victorious.