Juventus clinical edge too much for Celtic spirit
Celtic 0 Juventus 3: If this is the end of Celtic's Champions League dream – and it was hard to launch an argument for anything other than that conclusion – then the final act of an enthralling adventure will be remembered for its bravery and its brutality.
Neil Lennon could not have asked much more of his side in terms of effort and spirit. Their endeavour was huge, their desire unquestionable. To that honesty came the sheer mastery of European football from Juventus.
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Borderline at times in the legality of their defending, Lennon, who was unequivocal in his condemnation of Alberto Mallenco, the Spanish referee in charge, repeatedly called for protection for his players at the corners which were such a potentially pivotal moment throughout the game. It did not come; shirts were grabbed, arms were thrust out and into the vice-like grip of the Italian defending went opportunities to get a foothold in a game that was always just out of touching distance. From the moment Claudio Marchisio, following up an Alessandro Matri shot that had been cleared from behind the line by Kelvin Wilson when the game was not even three minutes old, put his side ahead, Juve had the edge in the game.
The Italians had been warned of the frenzy they would face. Antonio Conte, their coach, had called the Celtic support a 12th man on the eve of the game. He called it a 13th afterwards. "It was like two extra men."
A crescendo cascades down from the lofty stands that make Celtic Park such a magnificent setting. It is where champions are meant to play football. Only in the words of Gianluigi Buffon, the vastly experienced Juventus goalkeeper, was there a reminder of the Italian psyche. "As far as I'm aware," he had said, "a fan has never scored a goal."
Juventus lead Serie A by five points. They are the champions of Italy. They did not need a goal start, a position from which to sit back and soak up so much of the honesty that Celtic threw at them, from that third minute until the 77th, when, with the home side's legs faltering from the weight of their endeavour, came a second goal. And then a third. By then Celtic were well beaten.
It is half-time in the tie but it does not feel it. It did not feel it when Lennon bravely spoke of squeezing one more hurrah from his players. It is hard to imagine quite how, from here, that the scalp of Juventus can be added to that of Barcelona, leaders of La Liga, and Russian giants Spartak Moscow from the group stage. Not from here.
Lennon had to justify himself for the first time in the Champions League. Reality crashes quickly into the chink that defeat brings. Defender Efe Ambrose failed to connect with a header for the crucial opening goal. From there Juventus were in. They scored, they took control.
Ambrose had flown back from Johannesburg, where he won the African Cup of Nations with Nigeria on Sunday, to play. He only landed from the 10,000 mile journey on the day of the game. Lennon insisted he had no choice but to play the central defender, who also missed a great opportunity from Charlie Mulgrew's cross in the second half.
Juventus did not even consider playing their Ghanaian midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah, who had also played in the finals, but there is a disparity in wealth between these two sides that was only otherwise seen in the clinical nature of the visitors' finishing. Then Juventus were brutal. They only had seven shots on target in the match. That was enough to produce three goals.
The lead however, was precarious, until the very death. Lennon was unsparing in his criticism of Mallenco. He had said to the referee, as the sides went off at half-time, that he had to see the holding that was taking place at set pieces. Corners were chaos. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Gary Hooper were booked for wrestling each other as the Celtic forward attempted to block Buffon.
Forty per cent of Celtic's goals in this season's Champions League have come from headers. Italian sides are not given to a hands-off approach, Mallenco struggled for control. Ambrose and Victor Wanyama both had chances late in the first half from corners as the grabbing continued, but both headed wide.
From another corner, in the 63rd minute, Celtic had their opportunity to equalise. This time there was the subtlety that Lennon praises his side for possessing. Kris Commons, who was excellent, knocked his corner back to Mulgrew, whose diagonal, outswinging left-footed cross fell perfectly for Ambrose. The defender had just Buffon to beat from eight yards but the header was tame. On such margins do dreams end.
The punishment was quick and devastating. With 13 minutes remaining, Matri touched the ball onto Marchisio, who cut inside Scott Brown. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster got a hand to the shot but it was not enough.
Worse was to come with seven minutes remaining when Ambrose was caught in possession by Marchisio, he found Mirko Vucinic and the forward found the net. The Celtic nation deflated.
"We could quite easily have lost this game," Conte said. "But the team kept their heads, acted very well, showed great maturity with and without the ball. It was an excellent result for us in the end.In the first half we were under a lot of pressure, against a team playing with such intensity.
"We tried to sort that out at half-time, asking for the central midfielders to be more aggressive and push forward," the Juventus coach added. "We were better after that. Celtic are a good team, and they showed that. It was difficult."
Celtic's relentlessness has been a key characteristic of their run in the Champions League, but it is hard to see how Lennon can recreate that now. "We have to try and be competitive and try and work our way into the tie," The Northern Irishman said of the return in Turin on 6 March. "But it will take a miracle."
That sounded about right.
Man of the match Marchisio.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Mallenco (Sp).
Belfast Telegraph Digital