Celtic Park played host to a crunch clash as the Champions League returned with the knockout stages. Defending Italian champions Juventus were the away side at the home of the Scottish champions. Neil Lennon knew Celtic had to get a result at home to stand any chance in the tie. It didn’t quite go according to plan for “the Bhoys” as Conte’s men comfortably prevailed. The final score of Celtic 0-3 Juventus was a bit harsh on the home side, but the gulf in class was there to see as Juve’s experience and quality was not a match for Celtic.
Juventus set out with their usual 3-5-2 formation. Chiellini was obviously still absent while Asamoah and De Ceglie were also missing. Caceres was taken into the squad and January signing Peluso was played at full-back. It was the trusted midfield trio at the center of the pitch with Matri and Vucinic upfront. Anelka did come on later to make his debut, and equal Ibrahimovic’s record of appearing for 6 different clubs in the Champions League.
Neil Lennon went in with a 4-2-3-1 formation. A total of 9 changes were made from the side that beat Inverness on the weekend. Samaras was however missing from the side, as he failed to regain fitness in time. The surprise inclusion was Efe Ambrose who won the African Cup of Nations with Nigeria on Sunday and was included in the starting XI. A decision Celtic will likely live to regret. More on the later.
Celtic came into the game knowing they had to give it their all. Home games are vital in the knockout round of the Champions League and conceding away goals can be a disaster.
Lennon didn’t set his men out to defend and get a draw, instead the Scottish champions took the game to the Italians with constant pressure throughout the 90 minutes. The atmosphere in the stands matched the football on the field with the Celtic players determined to get a famous result. They prevented Juventus from having any time on the ball, even in defence, forcing them to play the ball out.
Conte seemingly anticipated this approach by Celtic and altered his tactics based on Celtic’s energetic play. Champions League games aren’t won with beautiful football (Barcelona the exception) but a certain Jose Mourinho will tell you that a good solid defence is more important. Conceding goals can be a disaster. So as many smart Italian sides have done before, Juventus too were content with sitting deep in their own half inviting pressure from the home side. The pressure evidently did come and Juventus’ tactic worked to perfected.
They tempted the Celtic players forward, with numbers back themselves, forced gaps to open up in midfield. As possession was regained, Juve utilised their wonderful passing game centred around the classy Andrea Pirlo, to launch quick counter attacks with a direct passing game. The football was brilliant to watch. The sheer calm and composed nature of Juventus despite the Celtic pressure proved what a strong side they really are, vital to win the Champions League.
The 3-5-2 approach worked well against Celtic’s 4-3-2-1. Both sides looked to utilised the wings but with a distinct difference. While Celtic were effective in an attacking sense, they were unable to defend in the wide areas. Celtic used the flanks to put constant crosses in with plenty of players getting forward. Kris Commons most notably making a nuisance of himself. In total, Celtic attempted a total of a massive 46 crosses in the game! 12 of those were met by a team-mate. Juventus in contrast made full use of their full-backs Lichsteiner and Peluso. Conte’s side have mastered this formation with the hard-working full-backs contributing in attack while also getting back in defence to help out the back three. This was the biggest difference between the two sides, Juventus were able to win the game out wide.
The Celtic players were constantly forced wide by the Juventus midfield. They applied pressure on the advancing midfielders preventing them from playing the ball through the centre. This forced the ball wide. As mentioned earlier Celtic constantly put crosses into the box, with 26% of them reaching a team-mate. Juventus were otherwise able to deal with the crosses with comfort as Barzagli, Bonucci and Caceres proved to be physically and aerially adept.
While full credit has to be given to Juventus for earning a great result going into the home leg, they had help from a Celtic player. Criticism is a little harsh on Efe Ambrose who only on Sunday played in his countries African Cup of Nations triumph over Burkina Faso. The 24-year-old had a game to forget with 3 crucial errors costing his side. He was at fault for the first goal as Peluso played a long ball over the top from the left flank, Matri contested for the ball with the Nigerian who missed or miss timed his jump. The ball fell easily to Matri with the goal at his mercy and no one in sight, there was a last-ditch attempt to clear off the line but replays showed the ball crossing the line.
His second error arrived in the 2nd half with the game still at only 1-0. Celtic played one of their 46 crosses from the left flank and Ambrose was in tons of space and unbelievably unmarked. Conte wouldn’t have been happy but Lennon was left infuriated as Ambrose played an almost certain goal from a couple of yards out straight into the hands of Buffon. His header was played straight into the ground which made the safe so much more easier. To top off an already horror performance, he was at fault for the 3rd goal as well. After intercepting a pass aimed for the left, he took time on the ball and tried to be a bit cute in his attempt to play the ball out. His error was pounced on, dispossessed off the ball and perfect opportunity was played through to Mirko Vucinic. The striker made no mistake clinically finishing his chance, taking his opportunity. It was Vucinic’s first shot on target. Some criticism could be given his way for the 2nd goal as well. He moved up quickly to close down his man rather than staying in his position which allowed Marchisio in into the box.
There was a lot of post-match controversy regarding the handling of the game by the Spanish referee. Celtic fans were displeased with what was perceived by them as ‘rough’ or ‘dirty’ play. Brown and Pirlo had a couple of disagreements but the main battle raged on during Celtic corners with Stephen Lichsteiner marking Gary Hooper. It was an off-the-ball physical battle as Lichsteiner ensured Hooper wouldn’t get into the game. Peluso too was involved as he pushed Hooper following a stamp by the latter. While Celtic fans can be displeased with some of the incidents, calls for red card were a bit over-the-top. Yes the game did get physical, but it certainly wasn’t illegal. After all, this is how we love the beautiful game don’t we?
The fairy tale is seemingly over early for Celtic as a 3 goal deficit is nearly impossible to turn over in Turin. Juventus can be confident of progressing into the quarter finals and with them at their clinical best, the other remaining sides will definitely be looking at them as contenders.
Statistics via whoscored.com. Featured image from caughtoffside.com