Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Barry Robson each gave Celtic the lead in a high-tempo thriller last night, but dreams of another glorious Champions League victory at Parkhead were shattered by the brilliance and goals of Lionel Messi, who netted twice, and Thierry Henry.
Ronaldinho and Deco were among the other Barcelona players who had to settle for being merely superior, not scorers, as the visitors dominated. Uefa's statistics said they had 63 per cent of possession. It looked like 90-plus after the break. Even Celtic's fans applauded them off at the end.
Barcelona remain the only side to have won at Celtic in this competition: they were the last side to do so, in September 2004, by 3-1 on that occasion. Given they will start the second leg of this last-16 tie with not just a lead but three away goals to their name, Celtic's hopes of a quarter-final place have to be considered slim. Too slim to see on this evidence.
But Celtic deserve praise for their part in a hugely entertaining game that remained a contest, in score at least, until Messi grabbed the winner 11 minutes from time. "It was probably a wonderful night for the fans but maybe not for me as a coach," Gordon Strachan, Celtic's manager, said. "At this level, the team that passes better generally wins and our problem was keeping the ball... I'm disappointed to score twice at home and lose. But I think Barcelona are the best squad in the world with super, super, players."
Asked if he believed in a miracle for the second leg, he replied: "What we do is go out there and make a right good game of it, and if nothing else get experience for the future."
Messi, Henry and Ronaldinho were Barça's blessed trinity of a front line. They and Deco, a seasoned Celtic tormentor, for Barça in 2004 and for Porto in the 2003 Uefa Cup final – gave Celtic no room for error, running rings round them.
Celtic had an early penalty shout denied when Scott McDonald fell under Gabriel Milito's challenge before Barça turned on the flair. Deco set up Messi. Stephen McManus punted the threat from his toes. Then a Hartley-Naylor mix-up allowed Deco to steal in. The ball found its way across goal, out to Andres Iniesta, and back in at velocity. Artur Boruc parried away but the pressure intensified.
Ronaldinho jinked to the box and shot. The ball cannoned of Hartley for a corner, and Henry had two chances thwarted. Ronaldino's cheeky chip then lacked power.
When Celtic broke free they did so gloriously, Aiden McGeady running and crossing to McDonald, who pulled back to Naylor, whose floated cross was headed home by Hesselink for an unlikely lead. It lasted mere minutes, Messi combining at the other end in a one-two with Deco before slotting home over Boruc.
The tempo went into overdrive near the break. Eric Abidal set up Henry, who volleyed over. McGeady hared off on another flank run, cut inside, placed his aerial pass, and Robson jumped and looped his header in to restore the lead.
Messi and Iniesta went close early in the second half, then vintage Henry restored parity. Ronaldinho laid off left to the Frenchman. Though under pressure, he took a few steps, looked up, and struck a curling right-footer inside the right post.
Massimo Donati came on for Hartley, and the Italian tested Victor Valdes with a stinging low shot within three minutes of his entry. But the next goal went to Messi, firing home after the ball ricocheted between scrambling defenders.
"It's an excellent Barcelona side," Robson said. "I think they were outstanding, loads of great players and they're hard to play against. I don't think any of us were good enough tonight... we need to be braver."