Even if Barcelona aren’t the same team without Lionel Messi, against a certain level of competition, there’s enough quality to back him up. Whether it’s Neymar, who doesn’t mind being the center of attention on the pitch and sacrifice for the team, or Cesc Fabregas, proving time and time again that he’s the best finisher this team has albeit the injured Argentine star.
The bottom line from their 1-0 in Celtic? Barcelona needed only two matches two take control of their group after the dropped points by AC Milan in Amsterdam. It wasn’t the most elegant of displays against a Celtic team that played in order to disrupt the match more than anything else, but it was different from last season, when Celtic’s aggression and passion drowned Barcelona on an emotional and overrated night for the Scottish champions.
Without Lionel Messi Barcelona still tried to play in the same way; without a real striker. For about 65 minutes, staying in that formation, it made it very difficult for them to create chances. Cesc Fabregas kept running away from the middle to link up with Neymar on the left wing, while the Brazilian had no problem beating his defender on the left, but no one to team up with or pass to in the middle of the box.
The same disease of not trying to shoot from long range hurt Barcelona a number of times, as Andres Iniesta and Neymar kept finding themselves in situations which requited taking a shot from 18-20 meters out, yet they kept preferring to pass one more time into an overcrowded penalty box, resulting in another wild clearance by Celtic, rarely resulting in a constructive counter attack.
One thing people tend to forget about Neymar is connected with the slight ignorance about South American football, especially at club level. Away crowds are just as daunting as anything Celtic might have cooked up. Players seeing him dribble and dive are just as dirty and vicious, much more than Scott Brown’s foolish yet soft kick at Neymar’s arm. There’s nothing but the magnitude of the competition in terms of international exposure that’s changed. Neymar has been doing this since he was 16, so it’s not surprising to see him so calm and focused, even if it is only his second Champions League match.
The red card to Brown did help Barcelona take control of the match, but it was only when they started playing with someone acting as a striker – Xavi or Cesc Fabregas to the surprise of some, did they become a lot more dangerous and eventually score the goal. Alexis Sanchez, coming on only a minute earlier, crossed from the right wing to find Fabregas wide open for the easy goal, similar to a chance Charlie Mulgrew had at the other end only to head the ball wide.
Barcelona move on from a very difficult venue to a much more comfortable road down the Champions League, but also with the knowledge that they can do fine without Messi, which is also been proven by statistics from recent years. Neymar might not play like Messi or positioned like him in his absence, but he has no problem being the focus of an attack. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before a time or two.