There are some nights where being a fan of any sport makes no sense. After a significant disappointment, the feeling of complete dejection is very real. Yet when something unexpected and utterly exasperating occurs it has to be savoured. In some cases that feeling can transform into a memory that lasts a lifetime.
I was fortunate enough to experience such a night on Wednesday. A 2-2 draw against Dundee United had preceded this game. Here, Celtic transpired to draw a game where it barely looked possible. Two late goals from United had left us all frustrated. I asked the same question that fans over the world ask when their team disappoint them in such a manner; what's the point of sport? Of course, seconds later, all fans instantly dismiss this question and look to the future, however bleak it maybe. In Celtic's case our future contained a home tie versus Barcelona in the Champions League. A team who over the past few years had been heralded as not just the best in the world, but one of the best in history. So it's fair to say this might be a tricky one for the bhoys.
Glasgow was buzzing in anticipation of the European giants. Any night game is special, but a Champions League fixture against Barcelona on your 125th anniversary, that's special and then some. The game began with a full stadium display to honour that anniversary. The Champions League anthem played over the tannoy, and overlaid with the crowd noise, it was akin to Glaswegian symphony. I very much doubt that the Barca players were intimidated, but they surely had to be impressed. Celtic Park is an awe-inspiring venue for a football match, but the fans make it unique. Led by the Green Brigade in Section 111, the chants bellowed throughout. All the favourite tunes came out in the first few minutes of the game. If we are being realistic, we wanted to savour the moment before the inevitable Barcelona onslaught occurred.
Instead, the game veered in a very different direction. A Mulgrew corner was met by a powerful Wanyama header. The net bustled. 1-0. Delirium ensued. Privately, I feared we may have just angered them, and soon enough Barcelona would restore the natural footballing equilibrium. After the events of the first tie, such a feeling was natural. However, half time came and the score had stayed the same.
As the second half began Messi and Forster resumed a duel that started in the Nou Camp. The English keeper produced another staggering performance, rising yet again on the biggest stage of them all. And as if his night had not been good enough, he added an assist. A long ball out, a mistake by Xavi (how often do you write that), and Tony Watt was through. The youngster finished off with sublime confidence. There was a fusion of pure joy and shock. It was late on in the game, could we, maybe, possibly, achieve the impossible.
Ten minutes later, the fourth official held up the board. Four minutes. The crowd voiced their anger at a referee who had been nothing short of woeful throughout. Then, in the blink of an eye, Messi scored. Excitement transformed itself to panic. There was enough time left and Barcelona were greatest attacking side in Europe. Were we going to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory? If we had, it would have left a deep scar on the fans, the team and the manager. Four minutes. It felt like four hours. It in all likelihood aged me by four years. But somehow, we held on.
The difference in quality was well surmised by Neil Lennon. "The difference is Tito can bring on Cesc Fábregas and David Villa as substitutes. I threw on Tony Watt, an 18-year-old kid who cost £50,000 from Airdrie". That was the mountain that the Celtic team overcame. Alex Song cost more than Celtic's whole squad. David Villa is worth five-times the value of Rangers. Overcoming such a gulf of talent and budget with beautiful football was not possible, but Celtic's tactics were incredibly effective. Across 180 minutes of football, Barcelona led for only one minute.
The Spanish papers were effusive in their praise for Celtic. Fraser Forster was proclaimed as 'La Gran Muralla' (The Great Wall) by El Mundo Deportivo. La Marca even said that there "is perhaps no greater home pitch advantage in all of football than a Celtic home match". Our team had captivated the crowd, shocked the European giants and impressed the world's sporting media. That's a combination that I just can't get enough of.
It had been a night like no other. A game where the seemingly impossible was achieved. A game where all who witnessed it will be able to recount their own individual tale. A game where the fans produced a unique serenade of sound. To experience such an occasion was simply unforgettable. Yet such nights need to be savoured and remembered. The next time we drop points away at Tannadice, or fail to beat Ross County and my mind flickers to that question, what's the point? I have the answer. Nights like Wednesday. They make it all worthwhile.
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