When Henrik Larsson left Parkhead at the end of May, the Celtic supporters who wept openly at the departure of their icon must have thought they would never see him again. How wrong they were. A remarkable twist of fate means that Larsson's No 7 shirt will be out on the green grass he called home for seven years. But it will be in Barcelona's colours.
Martin O'Neill admitted his heart sank when he heard the Champions' League draw, pitting him against the player he deemedirreplaceable. So much so that he - and the Celtic supporters - could barely even begin to absorb the fact that to qualify from Group F, he would need to overcome Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk as well as Barça's glamorous cast.
Celtic managed it last season of course, knocking the Spanish side out of the Uefa Cup. "They've improved a wee bit since then," noted O'Neill wryly. "Not only have they taken our best player, but they have added Deco, Ludovic Guily, who got Monaco to last season's final, and Samuel Eto'o, who is one of the best strikers in the world. Barcelona are now a team that has aspirations of winning this competition, never mind getting out the group."
The Celtic support has been engrossed in a feverish debate since the draw was made. They simply don't know how to handle the occasion. Many had already bought Barça shirts bearing Larsson's name before they knew he would be coming back to threaten their own Champions' League ambitions.
Larsson's 243 goals in seven years at Celtic bought him legendary status in the east end of Glasgow. He will be cheered to the heavens by the fans, just as they did when the Swede netted two headers for them in the 2003 Uefa Cup final defeat by Porto.
However, once the action starts, he will feel the heat in this most remarkable cauldron, where Celtic have yet to lose a Champions' League game. "It will be strange seeing Henrik come out of the other dressing room," admitted Alan Thompson, whose volley from Larsson's knockdown last season knocked Barcelona out.
"He is the best player I have ever played with and now they have him. But we just have to get on with it. Over the last few years, we've been fortunate enough to get good results in Europe and we want to maintain that on Tuesday. There's a little bit of spice because we beat them last season, but they will be coming here to win."
Thompson agrees with O'Neill that Barcelona now have so many options that shutting down Ronaldinho - as Celtic did for 180 minutes last season - will not be enough in itself. "They have brought so many quality players in," reflected the England midfielder. "I read that their manager, Frank Rijkaard, said he feared coming here after losing last time, but you know that is just mind games. They played so well here last season and created chances and you have to assume they will do so again, but we defended very well, especially in the Nou Camp."
If Celtic are to have a piece of magic of their own, it could well come from from their Brazilian. Juninho has inherited Larsson's No 7 shirt, and it seems the Swede's passion for golf, buying a new house in Scotland that looks out on to a course - but there the similarity ends, according to Thompson. "His talents are different to Henrik's. Juninho may not score the amount of goals Henrik did but he will create chances for other people. He's also a totally different style to Ronaldinho. Juninho has played on the biggest stage of all for Brazil, in the World Cup, but has never played in the Champions' League, so he will love this."
Parkhead's love affair with Larsson will be temporarily suspended, but if Juninho can embrace his new home, then Barça might be on the receiving end of yet another Glasgow kiss.Reuse content