Judge Vilanova when something goes wrong, says Barca legend Cruyff ahead of Celtic's date with Messi
07:17 GMT, 22 October 2012
Celtic have certainly made an impression. Not enough for Johan Cruyff to give them much of a chance against his beloved Barca, mind. But they’ve definitely registered a blip on the great man’s radar.
Pleased initially by their return to the Champions League proper, he has noted with some pleasure their first ever away win in the richest club competition on the planet; victory in Moscow is hailed as a real sign of progress.
If Cruyff is just being polite, the niceties stop at the prospect of Celtic emerging unscathed from Tuesday night’s fixture at the home of a Barcelona team who still make the famously arch-Dutchman break into a smile of unbridled joy. ‘Always,’ he says, flashing a grin to emphasise the point.
Unstoppable: Lionel Messi celebrates after completing his hat-trick against Deportivo La Coruna
High fives: Messi celebrates with Cesc Fabregas in Barcelona's latest triumph
Cruyff, the free spirit whose revolutionary genius remains imprinted on the soul of Barcelona, has certainly not fallen out of love with the Team That Pep Built.
Is there just a flicker of darkness, though, when the old King of the Nou Camp is invited to shower praise upon the new heir to the throne Might there be a suggestion that Barca boss Tito Vilanova, the former right-hand man promoted to replace Cruyff protg Pep Guardiola in the summer, is yet to convince the most keen-eyed critic in Catalonia If so, it will be pounced upon as a sign of hope by all seeking something — a miracle, preferably — to lift Scottish football out of its current gloom and misery.
Declaring his admiration for the work done by Neil Lennon to date, Cruyff seems almost overjoyed at Celtic’s return to the big league, telling Sportsmail: ‘It is good, first of all, for a Scottish team to be playing at this level. Seriously, that is a big step for a country that has struggled for a long time.
So far, so good: Tito Vilanova has guided Barcelona to the top of the table
‘I have watched as Scottish teams did just what the Dutch clubs did, wasting money on foreign players who did not improve the league, did not improve the competitive environment — and then they wondered why the European success did not always follow.
‘Now, I know Celtic have bought wisely and they have developed some of their own players. That is why they are back at this level.
‘And it was a big result in Moscow. A lot of very big clubs would struggle with that fixture away to Spartak — but they showed something by going to Russia and winning.
‘It’s impossible, of course, to say how they will progress from here. Barcelona are the favourites but, beyond that, the group is open.
‘Normally, Barcelona has a much better team than Celtic. If everything is as it should be, then Barcelona win every time.
Job well done: Scott Brown and Celtic celebrate their win in Moscow
‘But there are things a coach can do, things players can do, to make the gap less. Celtic have to work very hard and believe that they can achieve something.’
Informed that former Celtic manager Gordon Strachan had joked about visiting the nearest church as the best pre-match plan when facing Barca, Cruyff laughed as he replied: ‘Maybe he’s right! But there is always something you can do as a player or as a manager to close the gap.’
The importance of the manager is a subject under much discussion at home and abroad these days, with some arguing that his influence is almost entirely dependent on the players at his disposal.
In which case, Vilanova should have no problem in repeating the success of former boss Guardiola. With the same team, more or less, as his predecessor, the same results and performances should follow. It’s a nice theory.
Despite the hammer blows they suffered at home and abroad last season, their Liga title lost to Real Madrid, while the blunt instrument of Chelsea did for their Champions League hopes, it still feels almost heretical to question Barcelona.
The man they need to stop: Lionel Messi is the dangerman for Barca
Two wins out of two at the start of this Champions League campaign suggests that all is well with the greatest team in history, a team back on top in the domestic table and well clear of putative challengers Real.
Even ahead of Saturday night’s shipping of four goals in a 5-4 victory at Deportivo, those who study the minutiae of performance have become alarmed by a perceived easing of the pressing game as vital to Barca as their famed passing carousel.
There is a lack of width, Vilanova’s failure to by a central defender in the close season has been exposed as reckless, while Lionel Messi is said to be indulged to a potentially dangerous degree. Although it has to be said that the latter doesn’t appear to be affecting the wee genius, not going by his hat-trick against Deportivo.
Cruyff, the man who lifted Barca to great heights as first the greatest player of his era and then as a manager touched with a kind of dramatic genius, says of Vilanova: ‘Everything is going great for him now, just as we all expected. He knew the players, he knows the club very well, he helped Guardiola and was a part of a successful management team.
In good form: Celtic striker Gary Hooper helped his side to a 5-0 win away at St Mirren
‘But this is not the time to judge him as a manager. The time to judge him is when something goes wrong. When things don’t work out, when there is a crisis, that’s when you know if the coach is capable.’
If you detect a lack of warmth there, you’re not imagining things. The way in which Vilanova took the job, initially having promised to leave with Pep — who was believed to be considered by the English FA at one point — will rankle with Cruyff, whose own experience of seeing assistant Charly Reixach stay on when the Dutchman was himself sacked, remains a sore point; he still doesn’t speak to his former friend.
Neither is Cruyff a supporter of Barca president Sandro Rossell, to put it mildly. The pair are as close as you’d find to sworn enemies, so Vilanova — who left Barca as a player when the Dutchman was boss, having received an unsatisfactory answer to a ‘play me or sell me’ plea — won’t earn many points for throwing his lot in with the new regime.
Last time out: Barcelona beat Celtic twice in the group stages of the Champions League in 2008
But mostly the gloriously gifted Cruyff, whose arrival as the world’s first million-dollar footballer in 1973 inspired a generation, seems concerned about the football.
A man whose favourite sayings include: ‘If I wanted you to understand I would have explained it better’, had to change the entire philosophy of Barca when he returned as manager in 1988, implementing a tweaked version of the total football that still holds sway today. Any possibility of change to that is bound to provoke a reaction.
For all of the whispered doubts and hints of concern, though, Cruyff — who spoke to Sportsmail during his recent appearance in the Dunhill Links Championship — still gets a kick out of watching this group of players do their thing.
Asked if they still make him smile, the man who inspired his own ‘Dream Team’ to Liga and European Cup glory, says: ‘Always. Always they make me smile, make me very happy.
No comparison: Cruyff won't compare the Barcelona of today with the side he managed in the 1990s
‘There is no point in comparing them with the team I managed — I never compare, it is silly to try. All I can say is we had some fantastic players doing incredible things — and this team has some fantastic players doing incredible things.
‘Messi is the star, of course. But he only plays so well because he has Iniesta, Xavi or Fabregas to help him — look at the difference when he plays with Argentina, when the supporting quality is not there. But Messi is in a different league, on a different planet.’
Earthbound sides are occasionally allowed to visit Planet Barca, with the recent changes to the Champions League — making it easier for national champions from smaller markets to make the group stages — opening up the opportunity for more to experience the exquisite agony of taking on the best in the world.
‘It’s difficult to say that changing something like this makes it immediately possible for teams from smaller countries to succeed,’ said Cruyff, addressing the revamped qualification system.
‘So much depends on the individual clubs. Are they ready to make the jump It is one thing being given an invitation to play in the Champions League, another thing to make an impression once you get there.’
Lennon’s men have put a dent in the competition already, their four points from the opening two fixtures giving them a decent platform. Even if most expect them to be stuck on the same total after match days three and four, with Barcelona fancied to beat Scotland’s champions home and away.
Get so much as a point from those two fixtures, and they’ll have more than impressed one keen, cultured and indisputably qualified observer already taking admiring notice of their efforts.