If the purchase of Neymar was supposed to alleviate Barcelona’s dependence on Lionel Messi, the 21-year-old phenom finally put that plan into effect on Wednesday. Scoring three times and setting up a fourth, Neymar found his way onto a UEFA Champions League scoresheet for the first time in six games, giving the Messi-less Blaugrana a 6-1 win over Celtic at the Nou Camp.
In the process, the three-time champions confirmed their place atop Group H, their 4-1-1 group stage record leaving them four points clear of second place Milan. That standing ensures they’ll draw against the competition’s group stage runners-up on Dec. 16, with Champions League’s Round of 16 set to resume on Feb. 18.
The layoff gives Barcelona fans time to savor a breakout performance from the club’s $78.6 million purchase, a player who’d settled into the shadows during the first months of his European career. Entering the match, the former Santos star had five goals in 20 all competition matches, and while he’d also contributed nine assists in that time, the Brazilian’s goal scoring had been undermined by a transition period. After scoring 56 goals in his last year-and-half with Santos, Neymar was having to play second fiddle.
But with Messi still sidelined with a thigh problem, Neymar was center stage on Wednesday, a spotlight in which he thrived. After Gerard Piqué had opened the scoring in the seventh minute (putting home the rebound of an Alexis Sánchez shot), Neymar played a part in Barcelona’s next four goals.
In the 39th minute, Pedro Rodríguez doubled Barcelona’s lead after a Neymar step-over froze Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, with the Brazilian subsequently finding his teammate at the edge of the six-yard box. In the 44th, a scoop over the defense from Sanchez found right back Martín Montoya, with goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s save deflecting to Neymar for a finish into an empty goal.
Up 3-0 at halftime, Barcelona would double their lead in the second, the first salvo giving Neymar his second of the match. In the 48th minute. off a one-two with Xavi Hernández, Neymar was able to get a shot away from just inside the 18-yard box, his try beating Forster into the left of Celtic’s goal. Ten minutes later, Neymar had his hat trick, nutmegging Ambrose before putting a close range shot off Adam Mathews. making it 5-0, Barcelona.
Neymar would tease a fourth with close calls in the 65th and 74th minute, but by the time he was taken off in the 81st, it was Cristian Tello who had finished Barça’s scoring. The returning attacker, having come on for Alexis Sánchez in the 63rd minute, scored from the middle of the area in the 72nd minute. An 88th minute set piece headed home by Georgios Samaras proved the only blemish in Barcelona’s 6-1 rout.
It was a refreshingly dominant performance for a Barcelona team that’d lost two of its last three games, their only victory coming against a lower division club in Spain’s Copa del Rey. But with a quick, ruthless efficiency the team’s missed since the start of the season, Gerardo Martino’s team gave their most convincing performance since Messi’s injury.
In the process, they showed why the team need not be so wary of their star’s absence. Whereas a spring injury to Messi derailed Barça’s 2012-13 Champions League campaign, this year they have insurance. If this is the Neymar was can expect going forward — one that’s shaken free of his transition phase to embrace his potential — Barcelona may ready to be more than Messi and friends.
Barcelona: Gerard Piqué 7, Pedro Rodríguez 39, Neymar 44, 48, Cristian Tello 72
Celtic: Georgios Samaras 88
Barcelona: Pinto; Martín Montoya, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets (Alex Song 73), Xavi Hernández; Alexis Sánchez (Cristian Tello 63), Neymar (Jean Marie Dongou 81), Pedro Rodríguez
Unused substitutes: Andrés Iniesta, Jodri Alba, Carles Puyol, Oier
Celtic: Fraser Forster; Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, Virgil van Dijk, Adam Matthews (Anthony Stokes 82); Dirk Boerrigter, Nir Biton (Kris Commons 69), Sean Brown, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras; Teemu Pukki (Charlie Mulgrew 45)
Unused substitutes: Lukasz Zaluska, Bahrudin Atajic, Amido Baldé, Darnell Fisher