It goes without saying that Celtic face an uphill battle at the Camp Nou tonight. But then qualification for the next round was never going to be lost in the double-header against Barcelona.
The hosts were made to toil here in their opener against Spartak, in a game eerily reminiscent of the number Celtic later did on the Russians at the Luzhniki.
The formula for beating Barcelona remains clear – sit deep, keep compact, pack the midfield and the centre. After that, it’s a case of taking any chances that present themselves, luck… and praying that the home side have an off night.
In other words, easier said than done.
It’s certainly true that Barcelona have had their problems in defence. In the absence of their first choice centre-back pairing, they’ve been forced into playing Javier Mascherano – a converted midfielder – and Alex Song, a midfielder they hope to convert.
At the weekend against Deportivo their backline was breached four times, and although they played the final 40 minutes a man short, three of those came with a full quote of players.
But it’s debatable as to whether that offers too many pointers for Celtic. One came from a penalty that resulted from a foul subsequently shown to be outside the area, another from a free kick that probably shouldn’t have been given. The last came from a spectacular own goal from Jordi Alba. It’s unlikely that Celtic will be so lucky.
Further up the field, Barcelona are benefiting from the return to form of several important players. Cesc Fábregas has come in for a lot of stick, but has been excellent of late. On Saturday, he provided three assists, the final from a staggering through pass to Lionel Messi. He was unlucky to make way for Xavi as they looked to close out the game.
In the forward line, Pedro has recovered following a difficult spell at club level. His ability to play off either foot gives Barcelona much more natural width, giving them another option against teams looking to pack the centre. He hit a superb hat trick for Spain in Belarus, and that would have been four had he not passed up his easiest chance of the game.
Victor Valdés has been criticised in recent times, and certainly was below par against Depor. But then, any goalkeeper would suffer without the security of having his regular defensive partnership in front of him. And, as ever with Barcelona, simply getting hold of the ball – never mind working it into dangerous zones – is difficult enough.
Their first choice right back, Dani Alves is still out through injury. On the face of it, that might seem like a plus for the visiting side but the reality is different. In his absence, the youth team product Martín Montoya hasn’t put a foot wrong. Defensively, his positional sense and instincts are sharp, but he can also offer something in attack when called upon.
Indeed, many are already of the mind that the Brazilian will have his work cut out getting back into the team when he returns to fitness.
The question is just how attacking Barça will go as they look to all but seal their passage to next phase. Up front, it’s expected that Alexis Sánchez will return in place of David Villa. Neither, it must be said, have been in the best of form but the Chilean had arguably his best game yet in a Barcelona shirt in the 2-0 win at Benfica.
The suspension of Busquets through suspension leaves question marks over the defence and the attack. Tito Vilanova does have one natural option available to him at centre half in Marc Batra. But he’s been slow to call upon the youngster so far, despite the squad being stretched.
So it’s fair to assume that Song and Mascherano will start there again. That should mean a midfield trio of Fábregas, Iniesta, and Xavi with the latter playing a deeper role than normal. A truly fearsome prospect, but one that offers a glimmer of hope for the Scottish champions.
Sergio Busquets role for club and country is hugely important. This was shown in the second half of the France game, a game where a similar emergency led Del Bosque to play him in defence. Once France came out of their shell they overran the hosts in midfield. Busquets’ redeployment robbed the defence of cover, and they were made to suffer badly.
Nobody expects Celtic to dominate them in the same manner – but the point on the defence being exposed holds true, isolating Mascherano or getting in behind Jordi Alba when he pushes forward could prove profitable.
Joseph Sexton is a freelance journalist specialising in Spanish and European football. He contribute to STV Sport, Irish Examiner, World Football Daily and Spanish Football Previews. You can follow him on twitter at @josephsbcn.