With a new man at the helm and still feeling the pain of last season's semi-final elimination, Lionel Messi-inspired FC Barcelona breezed through Group G with a match to spare.
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With a new man in charge following the departure of Josep Guardiola, FC Barcelona enjoyed a relatively comfortable journey through UEFA Champions League Group G, despite a matchday four hiccup in Glasgow. Tito Vilanova's men qualified for the last 16 with a match to spare, leaving Celtic FC and SL Benfica to fight for second place in a section which also contained FC Spartak Moskva.
Story so far
Twice European champions under Guardiola, Barça were not only badly hurt by their elimination at home in last season's semi-final, but Chelsea FC's triumph was also the catalyst for the coach deciding to leave. Notwithstanding a raft of defensive injuries, a microcosm of which was Gerard Piqué limping off early in their opening match against Spartak, the determination to erase the stain of last term has been evident.
All the more credit to Celtic for their two fine performances against Tito Vilanova's side, including that remarkable 2-1 home win. The Azulgrana's two other performances away from the Camp Nou – a 3-0 win in Moscow and a 2-0 victory against Benfica – were potent indications of what their rivals in the first knockout round will face.
With the Liga side trailing Spartak 2-1 at home on matchday one, Christian Tello set Lionel Messi up for a 72nd-minute equaliser. Then came the clincher. David Villa and Pedro Rodríguez swung the ball from one side of the penalty area to another, with Alexis Sánchez then crossing for Messi, who, while not renowned for scoring headers, rose to nod the ball past Andriy Dykan. It was a significant 3-2 win.
Unsurprisingly, it has to be Messi. The No10 scored five goals, created three more and showed a capacity to lift an already very good team to exceptional levels. He has spoken about the pain of losing the aforementioned semi-final and how determined he is to make amends. It shows.
Tello's promise was epitomised by his goal and explosive assist for Messi's equaliser against Spartak. The 21-year-old is also more confident, complete and mature than last season. Extremely quick, he is beginning to look like a natural goalscorer, too.
Since 2005/06, the Blaugrana have been winners three times and beaten in the semi-finals by the eventual champions on another three occasions. The one exception came in 2006/07, when their round of 16 conquerors, Liverpool FC, went on to finish as runners-up.
"Teams only employ this kind of approach when they play us."
Tito Vilanova, one match into his UEFA Champions League career as Barça coach, confronts the reality of massed defences