WHENEVER they get nostalgic at Juventus and cast their minds back to their dominance in Serie A in the early 1980s, Liam Brady invariably gets mentioned.
A fleeting presence in the story of the Old Lady, but a glorious one. In DVD after DVD they sing his praises. Icons all. Marco Tardelli calls Brady his teacher. Roberto Bettega calls him the inspiration behind the championship of 1981. Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini and the manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, all acknowledge his place in the club’s history. Two seasons and two Scudettos.
“A 100 per cent record,” says Brady, pictured right. “You’ve gotta be happy with that.”
If Juventus celebrate Brady then the plaudits are entirely mutual. Their split was sudden and painful and was brought on by the arrival of Michel Platini, but this is a relationship that endures, a fascination coupled with an inside knowledge that was obvious when Brady spoke last week just as the Bianconeri began their planning for Glasgow.
So much about Juventus is new and that’s a blessing. Gone are the dog days of doping scandals and match-fixing catastrophes, but what Brady sees now does remind him of the past in one sense.
He looks at Antonio Conte and he thinks about Trapattoni. Strong-willed and well organised. He looks at success built on defensive solidity and is reminded of what it was like in his day when Juventus contributed the goalkeeper and three defenders to the Italian World Cup-winning side of 1982. This is Brady, academy guru at Arsenal (until next year when he says it’ll be time to go and smell the roses) and brilliantly enlightening football commentator on RTE television. He thinks of the big characters in his Juventus side and sees a couple in this vintage who are already in the pantheon of Juve’s greats.
“Go down through the years and I suppose a lot of people would pick Omar Sivori, Platini, Zidane, Del Piero. Maybe Platini would have been considered the greatest of them all until Pirlo came along and there’ll probably be a debate about that now. Platini or Pirlo. Or [Gianluigi] Buffon. Those two guys, Pirlo and Buffon, have been the emblems of the club for a long time. They’re the guys who stayed throughout all the nightmares. They didn’t jump ship and they’ll always be loved for that by the fans.
“The fans have got the club back and by that I mean the Agnellis are in there running it again after handing things over to other people for a number of years. That’s when they got into trouble, to put it mildly. The club is back on track and you can see that Buffon has a new lease of life. Juventus have a very spirited way of playing. It’s a bit like what Trapattoni did when he went there many years ago. There’s no stars, it’s just a team ethic and they’re getting their rewards.
“Trapattoni didn’t have any star players in the two years I was there. Well-known players, yeah, but they weren’t stars. He managed to keep everybody together and built things on an outstanding goalkeeper in Zoff and some fantastic defenders and a little bit of creativity here and there and that’s what Conte has done. They’re not nearly as talented as the Barcelona side that Celtic beat, but Celtic are going to have their work cut out to score a goal against them.”
The numbers illustrate the sense of what Brady is saying. Last season, across the four top leagues in Europe, Juventus’ defensive record was the best of any club. It is once again the best in Serie A so far this season and in the group stages of the Champions League only PSG have conceded fewer goals than Conte’s team.
Juve’s solidity doesn’t make for the kind of spectacle that Barcelona can provide, but it’s serving them well. It doesn’t really matter that their leading scorer this season, Fabio Quagliarella, has scored a mere seven goals in all competitions, because the goals are still coming, it’s just that they’re dished out all over the place. Only Roma have scored more times than Juventus in Serie A this season and only PSG and Bayern Munich boast better numbers in the Champions League. They don’t have a consistent poacher, a weakness they are seeking to address with the loan signing of Nicolas Anelka and, from the summer, the arrival of the Spaniard Fernando Llorente, but they are not short on goals.
“The centre forward, Mirko Vucinic, is a bit like a Berbatov, he’s the type of striker who links it all together. You can play it into him and the ball sticks and he’s got great imagination, but he’s not a 25-goal-a-year striker, you know what I mean? He reminds me a bit of Bettega as well. Bettega wasn’t a prolific goalscorer but he was great at linking things up and like our team, this Juventus side are getting goals from everywhere.
“When you have a striker like Vucinic then you need people getting in the box around him. I think he’s outstanding, the Montenegrin. When I was involved with Ireland with Trapattoni, we played Montenegro during the World Cup qualifying campaign and he was excellent for them. He does his best work outside the box and he’s a player Celtic are going to have to be wary of.”
Juventus’ passage to the last 16 has been classically Italian, three draws in their first three games and then, when the job needed to be done, three wins in a row with the concession of precisely zero goals. The hope for Celtic, though, comes with some indifferent form since the turn of the year. Plus some absent influences. Juve have missed the leadership of the injured Giorgio Chiellini at the back, Chiellini being the commanding presence who leads the three-man defence that Conte is fond of deploying. He’s been injured since just before Christmas and Juve have not looked nearly as tight in recent games. The second whammy has been Kwadwo Asamoah’s absence from the defence. Asamoah is a midfielder by nature but such is his versatility and athleticism he’s been turned into a defender in Conte’s hands and he’s been a magnificent part of the Juventus story.
Trouble is that he’s been at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ghana. Though they lost their semi-final midweek, they had a third and fourth play-off to complete yesterday. His importance as a player was illustrated by Juventus pleading with the Ghana Football Association to rest him for that game. Juventus don’t function at full pelt without Chiellini and Asamoah. If both are missing on Tuesday night, Celtic have to make hay.
Brady knows it and he knows what Celtic are about as well. “When you don’t win at Celtic it’s hard on a manager and I know all about that. Neil Lennon has really grown into the job. This campaign has put him up there as a top coach whose tactics have got them this far. Fair play to Dermot Desmond and the powers-that-be for sticking with him when there was a lot of speculation that he might leave the job. He’s got loads of fight in him, Neil.
“A lot of teams symbolise their manager’s character and I think you see that with Celtic in the Champions League. They’ve been a mirror image of Neil as a player, fiercely determined and focused and not intimidated by anything. They’re up against it with Juventus. The probability is that they are going to go out, but you wouldn’t be putting too much money on it. If they can beat Barcelona then they can beat Juventus.
“I don’t think they’ll have to defend as much as they did against Barcelona by any means. They’re up against better players and very experienced players and they have to have their concentration and commitment exactly as it was against Barcelona. The thing to admire about Celtic in those games was the level of defensive support the back players got from their midfield, the fact that they didn’t lose concentration when people were playing one-twos around them.
“Victor Wanyama looked a top player and I can’t believe that they’re not getting approaches for him. Everybody stuck to the task and, yeah, they rode their luck but Juventus won’t pose the same threat. If they can capture the same attitude they had in the two games with Barcelona they can go to Turin with the tie still very much in the balance. I do feel that. I think it could be a draw or a narrow Celtic win in Glasgow. The Italians will always have that mentality that if they get a draw it’s not a bad result. It’s not so much in their minds as in their blood. They’ll be very happy with a draw in the first leg. Second leg, well, I’ll be going to that one.”
It’s a different stadium to the one he played in but after the disgrace of recent years it is more like the club he graced more than three decades ago. In the here and now we are about to witness the two-part Champions League story of the LadyBhoys. With his history in both cities, Brady will be as engrossed as the rest of us.