Georgios Samaras headed a first-half opener, but even after Andres Iniesta equalised on the stroke of half-time, Celtic’s bravery kept Barcelona at bay until, with almost the last kick of the contest, Jordi Alba forced home the winner.
“It is bittersweet really,” Lennon said. “It is hard to take losing the game in the manner in which we did but I am so proud of the players, I think they gave the club and country a huge shot in the arm.
“There is a mixture of disappointment and anger that we didn’t see it through to the end of the game.
“The players are hurting, angry, whatever you want to call it but it gave them a real a taste of playing in the Champions League at the highest level and they did fantastically well.”
Group G’s dynamic had altered significantly before this game kicked off as Spartak’s victory over Benfica in Moscow lifted the Russians off the bottom of the group and brought them to within a point of Celtic. But if that added to the pressure on Lennon’s side there was precious little they could do about early on.
Samaras, whose physical power and hard-running style was identified by Lennon as one of the few weapons in Celtic’s armoury that might trouble Lionel Messi and co, initially began behind Gary Hooper but, as the half progressed, he became the target man for his hard-pressed colleagues. Not that the Greek saw much of the ball.
Barça were without the injured pair of Carles Puyol and Dani Alves, while Sergio Busquets was suspended and coach Tito Vilanova sprung a surprise by deploying 21-year-old Marc Bartra in central defence alongside Mascherano. They nevertheless seized Celtic by the throat from the off and the Scottish champions should have been a goal down inside the first minute when Iniesta produced a perfect pass only for Alexis Sanchez to push his effort beyond the far post.
Celtic’s difficulty was in keeping the ball long enough on the other side of the halfway line to have any chance of giving Victor Valdes more to do than watch the action unfolding at the other end of the field. Iniesta, of all people, obliged them by fouling Brown wide on the Celtic right, about 30 yards from goal. Lennon had prayed for just such an eventuality and the outcome could not have gratified him more.
Charlie Mulgrew’s pacy delivery was met by Samaras, whose spring on the six-yard box afforded him a free header. His effort might have found the mark but, in the event, Mascherano got in the way and the ball came off his back to leave Valdes stranded.
The Catalans, briefly bemused by this unforeseen turn of events, were soon swarming around the opposite goalmouth but what really disrupted Celtic was the injury to Samaras, sustained in a challenge with Song – which forced the forward to depart and be replaced by James Forrest.
Still, the green-and-white rampart held until, with half-time sanctuary in sight, Celtic were undone by a dazzling display of classic Barça interplay. Messi – on a quiet evening for him – burst into life with a prompt to Iniesta, who played a lightning one-two with Xavi Hernández before driving precisely between Forster and his left-hand post for the equaliser.
If they went in deflated at half-time they shrugged it off – Lennon’s men stood firm for the second half until, alas, there was no answer to Alba’s touch in from a curling cross from the right.
“No one gave us any hope but I think we have won a lot of admirers,” said Lennon. “They were brave, I couldn’t ask any more from them, maybe just 30 seconds more to see it through.
“I think we leave with our reputation intact,” Lennon added. Better than that, Celtic will be replete with confidence when the sides meet again in Glasgow in two weeks.
Barcelona: Valdes, Adriano, Bartra, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Song, Iniesta, Sanchez (Villa 80), Messi, Pedro (Tello 76).Subs: Pinto, Fabregas, Jonathan, Montoya, Sergi Roberto.
Booked: Mascherano, Adriano.
Goals: Iniesta 45, Jordi Alba 90.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Wilson, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Samaras (Forrest 43), Brown (Commons 63), Wanyama, Ledley, Mulgrew (Kayal 76), Hooper.
Subs: Zaluska, Matthews, Miku, Rogne. Booked: Forrest.
Goals: Samaras 18.
Ref: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy).