GLASGOW: Lionel Messi hit a brace as he returned to the Barcelona line-up to help book their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a comfortable 2-0 win at Celtic on Wednesday.
Messi, who missed Saturday’s goalless draw with Malaga due to illness, provided a fine finish to Neymar’s lofted pass to hand the Spanish champions a 24th-minute lead in Glasgow.
The Barcelona captain, who grabbed a hat-trick in the 7-0 mauling in the reverse fixture in the Camp Nou, then converted a 56th-minute penalty won by Luis Suarezto see his side top Group C with 12 points from five games.
Manchester City’s draw with Borussia Monchengladbach in the group’s other match also sees the English side through and means Celtic can’t pip the Germans to third spot due to their inferior head-to-head record.
“It was quite a hard game and we expected Celtic to come out and make it difficult,” said Barcelona manager Luis Enrique.
“We were good at the back and we got better as the game went on. It was a very difficult group and it’s great to finish first with a game to spare.”
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers felt his side had improved significantly from their hammering in the Camp Nou, although their European adventures are over for another year.
“I was proud of the team tonight. We looked like we played without any fear and we pressed the game well,” Rodgers said.
“If we take some of our chances then it might have been a different game but we showed a vast improvement, which is important.”
Apart from the injured Andres Iniesta, Barcelona named their strongest 11 as Suarez and Messi returned from suspension and illness respectively to form their formidable partnership with Neymar in the Barca attack.
Celtic didn’t allow the visitors time on the ball as they pressed high up the pitch early on.
However, Barcelona began to probe at the Celtic defence with Mikel Lustig looking particularly vulnerable to the runs of Jordi Alba and Neymar.
The Brazilian was first to burst into the Celtic box and teed up Messi with a back-heel and the Argentine’s deflected shot had Craig Gordon scrambling across his line before it was cleared.
Alba was then the provider as his cross from the left found Ivan Rakitic lurking in the box but the Croatian international sent his header bouncing into the turf and over the bar.
Celtic failed to heed the warning signs and Barca soon had a deserved lead.
Neymar, who learned earlier in the day that Spanish prosecutors were seeking a two-year jail sentence and 10-million-euro fine for his part in his allegedly fraudulent transfer to Barca, was given space to play a wonderful lofted pass to Messi, who crashed a sublime shot on the half-volley in off the near post.
The hosts tried to respond and had their first shot on target in the 37th minute when Moussa Dembele stung the palms of Marc Andre ter Stegen with a fierce strike.
Only a superb save from Gordon stopped Suarez from adding a second before the break as he blocked a point-blank header from the Uruguayan international with his body.
Celtic lost Scott Sinclair to injury at the break but his replacement James Forrest created Celtic’s best opportunity when he picked out Dembele with a cross but the in-form French forward sent a tame header straight to ter Stegen.
It was to prove costly as Barcelona doubled their advantage moments later. Suarez got on the wrong side of Emilio Izaguirre and the Celtic defender hauled him to the ground to earn a penalty that Messi sent straight down the middle to score his 502nd goal for the Catalan giants.
Neymar was fortunate to escape with just a booking, which will see him miss the final group game, as he pushed Lustig to the turf after the players clashed, with the Brazilian international subbed moments later.