“Better teams than us have found it difficult,” Brendan Rodgers said before this game, but even he can’t have imagined it would be quite this hard. Celtic’s opening night in this season’s Champions League was a long one, a goal coming inside the opening three minutes, another coming inside the closing three minutes and five more coming between them. Three for Leo Messi, two for Luis Suárez, and one each for Neymar and Andrés Iniesta completed a seven-nil destruction.
For a manager who declared himself an “admirer of everything that Barcelona stand for”, this was a painful demonstration of their qualities. Barcelona inflicted seven goals, and a thousand cuts upon their visitors, not just playing the game in Celtic’s half but much of it inside their own area, almost from the start. By the end of it, the moment that might have changed the game – a Moussa Dembélé penalty saved by Ter Stegen – was forgotten, buried beneath all that football.
The opening goal came from a corner, but not by the traditional route. Instead Neymar took it short to Jordi Alba, who gave it back to him out on the left touchline. The Brazilian appeared to have run out of space, pushed back towards his own goal, but he cut inside and, with the defence stepping out, turned the ball into the area for Messi to control and hit high into the top corner from the edge of the six-yard box. The clock showed 2:45; this looked like being a long night for Celtic.
Kolo Touré smashed one off his own post a moment later and soon after Messi slipped the ball through the legs of Nir Bitton to thump narrowly wide from 20 yards. Less than a minute after that, Suárez slid in, inches from providing the finish to what was essentially a 40-yard one-two with Messi. A pattern seemed to have been set early: Barcelona had the ball while Celtic ran after it, usually arriving too late.
But then it was Marc-André ter Stegen who arrived late, on 22 minutes. Scott Sinclair’s run began inside the centre circle and took him to the edge of the area where he slipped the ball through to Dembélé. Out came Ter Stegen, bringing him down for a penalty. As the striker stood over the spot, the German goalkeeper performed star jumps, a bright orange-pink figure with even brighter yellow extremities. Then, he dived to his right and pushed the penalty away two-handed.
Barcelona had survived this one and quickly increased the lead. Rodgers had said Celtic’s opponents could find space even if you parked two double-decker busses, and this was as good an example as you could wish for. Messi, Neymar, Messi, Neymar, Messi – through tiny green and white gaps they went, back and forth, until Messi finished from barely a yard. Ivan Rakitic had one cleared off the line and Neymar was stopped by Dorus de Vries.
Yet Barcelona’s pressing did occasionally allow an exit route and Celtic were not adverse to seeking it, Scott Brown hauled down as he broke and then a neat combination released Kieran Tierney whose angled pass was finished by Sinclair, in an offside position.
Three minutes into the second half, Barcelona had the third. Brought down by Bitton, Messi won a free-kick 25 yards out. Both he and Neymar stood over it; it was the latter who stepped up and curled it into the top corner, off De Vries’s hand. If the score worried Rodgers, watching from the touchline, the time probably did too: there was more of this to come.
Neymar clipped in a cross for Iniesta, on as a substitute replacing Rakitic at half-time, to do something very unlike Iniesta: arriving in the area, he absolutely smashed the volley into the net. It was four now; it would be five almost before they realised it.
Barely 15 seconds passed between Celtic kicking off and the ball hitting their net. Again the pressure was high, again the passing was crisp: Suárez pulled back for Messi to slide the ball in and complete a hat-trick.
The way it arrived was symptomatic: it was not that Barcelona were rattling off shots from all over the place; it is not their way and they did not need to. Yes, Neymar had curled one in from 25 yards and Iniesta had belted his, but Messi’s three came from a combined total of 15 yards or so. And the two goals that followed came from much the same distance. Barcelona were slicing through Celtic, the moves not finished until they had virtually run out of pitch.
Celtic might have been deep by design, but Barcelona pushed them still further and they could not find a way out. Rodgers had said that Suárez can occupy an entire defence alone; Suárez and his team-mates barely let them breathe.
Barcelona combined inside the area often. And when, momentarily, the visitors found a way to step up, leaving space, Barcelona flooded into it with speed. The regret Rodgers may have would have resided in his side’s apparent passivity.
Of the front three, only Suárez hadn’t scored – that “beautiful man” Rodgers had called him – and he soon remedied that when Neymar clipped the ball towards him, dropping it on the Uruguayan’s chest, on the edge of the six-yard box. Suárez controlled, turned and thumped the ball into the roof of the net.
Six now, then seven. Another short corner, Messi’s ball across and Suárez, who played under Rodgers at Liverpool, poked it in from three yards.