The Champions League is a hard school. A savage, humiliating playground where weakness is picked apart, exploited and ruthlessly bullied.
Barcelona had Celtic dangling on a string here, pushing and pulling the Parkhead side around the expanses of the Nou Camp pitch at will. When the mood struck they bared their claws and showed no mercy. Like a tiger pawing wool.
They stopped at seven and for Scotland’s champions that was the night’s only saving grace. Moussa Dembele’s missed penalty added to the anguish of a night when scoring nil felt like a moral victory.
For Celtic, careful what you wish for might be the motto in future. After two years of pining for a return to Europe’s elite this was a chastening lesson from the world’s finest club team. A humbling reality check and a reminder of how football is played in a parallel universe.
It was Messi’s night, of course. It always is. To those who subscribe to the view he is the world’s greatest player this was a night of vindication. The little maestro was irresistible; his movement, vision, passing and finishing exemplary as he claimed a hat-trick.
Brendan Rodgers described Luis Suarez as a ‘beautiful’ man in the pre-match press conference. Yet in Barcelona’s footballing beauty parade the brilliant Uruguayan scored two goals and still took third place to Messi and Neymar, the Brazilian teeing up four and scoring one.
A late Suarez double made this the worst European defeat in Celtic’s history. Worse than the 6-1 loss here of three years ago, but made less painful than it might have been by Barcelona’s brilliance.
‘They are very special players,’ Rodgers acknowledged. ‘I had the great fortune to work with one of them and Luis (Suarez) was at his top level. It’s a front three that can occupy as many players as you want.
‘We had five in the back line but their movement, speed and touch can make it very difficult for you. They are world class players and showed it tonight.’
Technique was a huge part of the battle. Yet when push came to shove Luis Enrique’s team were calm and composed. Gordon Strachan has a phrase for what happened here; scared football. Three or four passes were all Celtic could manage. Getting the ball was hard enough. As in Israel against Be’er Sheva, keeping it proved beyond them.
Rodgers insists his team will be better for this. Yet a course of post traumatic counselling might be wise. Just in case.
‘We need to conserve the ball better,’ said the Celtic boss. ‘It’s okay in the domestic games, you have a lot of the ball and greater belief in your ability.
‘Tactically, the players carried out everything we wanted. But tiredness, especially in the second half, came into it along with Barcelona’s quality. They rested about eight players at the weekend and were fresher than us.’
Going with a five man defence which plunged new signing Cristian Gamboa into his first club game since February the Parkhead boss could have camped ten on the line for all the difference it would have made. Dorus de Vries displaced Craig Gordon and on nights like this proving that was a wise move is a hard sell.
Messi’s first in two minutes 45 seconds set the tone.
Messi ghosted into acres of space in Gamboa’s area of the pitch to gather a sublime Neymar through ball and smash the ball past De Vries at his near post.
Already Moussa Dembele’s Rangers hat-trick has begun to feel like an eternity.