Barcelona's best beat out message to Europe

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The Independent Online

Easter Road is not the Nou Camp, or, for that matter, the San Siro, but it will serve a cathartic purpose for Celtic today if it allows Martin O'Neill's team to get over their Champions' League lesson from Barcelona.

Easter Road is not the Nou Camp, or, for that matter, the San Siro, but it will serve a cathartic purpose for Celtic today if it allows Martin O'Neill's team to get over their Champions' League lesson from Barcelona.

If there is a sense of déjà vu, it is because Celtic went to Hibernian's ground last March just days before they mastered Barça in their own Catalan backyard. There was little doubt on Tuesday, in front of 60,000 people at Parkhead, and millions watching live around the world on television, that Barcelona have changed remarkably since Celtic knocked them out of the Uefa Cup last season.

The £45 million spent on new players, not to mention the recruitment of one of the most eminent free agents in Europe, Henrik Larsson, have transformed the Spanish side. Their 3-1 success in the east end of Glasgow - the first European team in 20 games to win at Parkhead - has rippled around the Continent.

Celtic were torn apart in the first half and could have been four down instead of just one, from the sublime Deco, before David Marshall's penalty save from Ronaldinho. But Chris Sutton's equaliser turned the contest on its head so much that Barcelona were the ones hanging on for the draw until Larsson set up Ludovic Giuly and then scored himself to silence the fans who once worshipped him. If Group F is the "Group of Death", Celtic are going to have to conjure up a resurrection. Next up, it's Milan in the San Siro. So Stilian Petrov acknowledges the importance of securing a sixth straight win of the Scottish Premier season in Edinburgh today.

"If you lose one, you try to get back in the next game so that you are over it," said the Celtic midfielder. "A team's confidence can go down, but we've shown before that even when we lose we can come back and win again."

Celtic proved that on their last visit to Easter Road. They had a point to prove, given that Hibernian had knocked them out of the Scottish League Cup, and O'Neill's team came up with a formidable 4-0 win, notable not for Larsson's habitual two goals but for the fact that his strike partner was Petrov, press-ganged into a role up front due to injuries to Sutton and John Hartson.

Sutton's influence on Celtic when he came on for Juninho at half-time against Barça was widespread. He knocked Ronaldinho off the ball with his first act and then found the net with such a rousing finish the roof was almost lifted off Parkhead. At the end, he and Larsson embraced and swapped shirts in a touching cameo, but Petrov acknowledges that few of the Celtic team had got that close to a Barça player in a torrid first half before Sutton's arrival.

"We didn't play very well from the start," said the Bulgarian. "We said at half-time that if we want to take something from the game, then we would need to find the next level, try to put them under pressure and score. Chris's goal was great and I had a shot saved after that, but Barcelona deserved to win. They were a better team than last season. They have more power up front, with Henrik and Giuly, but they took their chances. We need to be better prepared for the game in Milan."

Celtic's pursuit, though, of a fourth Scottish title in five seasons will not be downgraded even if the SPL is hardly a dry run for meeting Barcelona or Milan. "The SPL does not prepare you," declared Neil Lennon, "but neither would the English Premiership. Only Arsenal or Chelsea would have lived with Barça - they are the new Real Madrid."

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