Celtic equal to Barcelona challenge, says Balde

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The Celtic defender Bobo Balde has admitted he was disappointed when his club was paired with Barcelona in the last 16 of the Uefa Cup - because he had wanted to play them in the final.

The Celtic defender Bobo Balde has admitted he was disappointed when his club was paired with Barcelona in the last 16 of the Uefa Cup - because he had wanted to play them in the final.

The Guinea international was sent off in last year's final against Porto, which the Hoops lost 3-2 in extra-time. Martin O'Neill's side now face the toughest of barriers in the shape of the famous Catalans, with the first leg to take place at Parkhead tomorrow.

"I would have loved to have played Barcelona at the Uefa Cup final," Balde said, "but we always knew that we were going to be paired against a big name when the draw was made because we weren't seeded.

"Now we have to work hard, keep our focus and try to play as well as we can, but we know it will be a hard game."

Celtic have been vulnerable away from home this season, losing all three Champions' League group fixtures outside Glasgow. They also lost 1-0 in Teplice last week, having done all the hard work in the home leg.

But it is their fearsome home record, which now stretches to 73 unbeaten games in all competitions, that gives Balde hope that Barça could be humbled. The Hoops have not been beaten in front of their own fans since August 2001 when Ajax won a Champions' League qualifier but lost the tie.

Blade said: "It is an absolutely massive one for us but I am confident going into the game. We have played a lot of European games over the last few years and we know that we have to stay calm and take it one game at a time.

"We feel confident and it is nice to be taking our undefeated record into the game, but that doesn't mean much. We know that we have to work as hard as we can and play to our best but it is a game we are looking forward to."

Meanwhile, the former Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson has tipped Rob Douglas to repeat history by shutting up shop against Barcelona tomorrow. Simpson managed to keep a clean sheet the last time the Catalan giants came to Glasgow in 1964 - but Celtic were already trailing 3-1 from the first leg at the Nou Camp and had little chance of progressing in the Fairs Cup.

This time around, Celtic head into the tie knowing they have every chance of putting pressure on the Primera Liga side for the return leg in Spain in a fortnight's time. That means stopping world-class players like Ronaldinho and Patrick Kluivert as Barça search for the all-important away goal.

Celtic have already raised their profile in Europe by reaching the Uefa Cup final last year and narrowly missing out on the knockout stages of the Champions' League earlier this season. Simpson insists that Douglas has proved in the past that he is up to the task. "He has already shown last year that he can cope with some of the best players in the world, and Celtic got to the final," said Simpson. "He has had a very good season and has been playing well recently.

"But it's not just up to the goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet - football is a team game, and that means everyone else knowing when to defend and knowing when to go forward."

Celtic's forward line could prove to be O'Neill's biggest problem. John Hartson and Shaun Maloney are ruled out for the rest of the season, and a question mark remains over Chris Sutton's fitness - which could mean responsibility for goals lying solely on the shoulders of Henrik Larsson.

The Swedish striker has already been linked with a move to the Nou Camp when he quits Parkhead in the summer, and Simpson is in no doubt that Barcelona will be fully aware of the threat he will pose.

"It's never easy when you are without some of your regular players," Simpson added, "but there are other members of the squad who can come in.

"That is what being at a football club is all about, working for each other. Henrik Larsson is a world-class player, so you always think that he will be able to come up with something. But I'm sure that's what Barcelona are thinking as well."

Meanwhile, the club have been handed an allocation of just 5,000 tickets for the return leg in Barcelona - 10,000 fewer than had been requested.

A Celtic spokesman said: "Given the huge demand for Celtic's European matches we had requested up to 15,000 tickets for our supporters, with an option for more if required."

However, Barcelona have indicated that due to the "right to buy" conditions of their own season book holders, 5,000 is the maximum number of tickets that could be provided.