EVEN before they kicked off on Tuesday night, Celtic’s Champions League campaign this season had exceeded all reasonable expectations and, at times, defied footballing logic.
So it was perhaps in keeping with what had gone before that Neil Lennon and his players should experience a sense of shellshock at the manner of their 3-0 defeat to Juventus in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
That equalled the biggest home defeat of Celtic’s 50-year European history. But, unlike the 3-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners’ Cup back in 1995, it was not an occasion which saw the Parkhead club completely outplayed and outclassed by vastly superior opposition.
Instead, the Scottish champions were undone by a potent combination of individual errors at crucial moments, failure to make the most of their spells of ascendancy in the game and the ruthless finishing of a tactically astute Juventus outfit.
It was a night when it was Celtic’s turn to rue the fact that the the statistical analysis of the match was not fully reflected in the final outcome.
Back in the group stage, their momentous 2-1 home win over Barcelona was achieved despite having just 27 per cent of possession. Against Juventus, they achieved near parity in possession, which was 51-49 per cent in favour of the Serie A leaders. Celtic earned ten corners to four for Juventus, compared to a count of 7-2 in Barcelona’s favour three months ago. While the dominance of the Spanish giants saw them have 24 attempts on goal to just five for Celtic that night, on Tuesday it was Lennon’s team who managed 17 efforts to the nine mustered by Juventus.
Little wonder, then, that there was an air of bewilderment amid the disappointment expressed by the Celtic players who, not unreasonably, left Parkhead feeling they had been poorly rewarded for the overall level of performance they had produced.
“We feel like we’ve been knocked over,” said Celtic’s Swedish defender Mikael Lustig. “Inside the first couple of minutes we won a corner and then they’ve gone up the pitch and scored.
“Our reaction to going down 1-0 was quite good. We made a lot of chances but didn’t take them. We had ten corners and sometimes we were close, but they defended well.
“Against a team like Juventus, if you get around ten corners, you need to score from them if you are going to win the game.
“After they scored the second goal, we didn’t play that well. We’d done well up until that point. Juventus only created four or five good chances and scored three goals. We’ve created maybe 13 and not scored.
“Between the first and second goals, we were absolutely the better team. I think the final score flattered Juventus. We created so many chances but sometimes we needed that bit extra and on the night we just didn’t have it.”
Lustig’s sentiments were echoed by his defensive colleague Kelvin Wilson who especially rued the concession of Juventus’ third-minute opening goal to Alessandro Matri.
“I think in the first half we dominated the game,” said Wilson. “Anyone who watched it will agree it wasn’t a 3-0 game..
“In the first half, I thought we were brilliant. Playing at the back, I felt comfortable and thought the team was doing almost everything right.
“We definitely felt disappointed to be losing at the break. We had some great chances, especially from set pieces, which we’re known to be good at. There was Efe Ambrose’s chance, then Victor Wanyama’s.
“But, when you don’t take your chances and then give the ball away like we did at crucial times, then you get punished at this level.
“The first goal was a real blow. You have done all the preparation, then that happens. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s football, you play at this level and it happens. You can’t let quality players like Juventus have anything.
“Juventus proved it here. They had what I would class as four real attempts on goal and scored from three of them. So that shows you the quality we’re up against. That was probably the difference.
“The manager was a little angry afterwards. We had dominated the game for long spells.
“If the score’s 2-1, it makes it more interesting but to concede three goals and not score one, well that’s very disappointing. How we conceded the goals is frustrating. I think the gaffer’s just frustrated more than anything but it’s the same with all the players. We’ll try to move on from it now.
“Going out to Turin and trying to score three goals is going to be hard. But we’ve got a good set of lads and we’ll give it a good go.”
Lustig believes it is important that Celtic present a better impression of themselves at the Juventus Stadium on Wednesday 6 March to underline that their progression to the last 16 was fully on merit.
“We now want to go there and show everyone that we are a good football team,” he added. “We showed that in parts on Tuesday night but, after Juventus scored their second goal, we didn’t play that well. Of course it’s going to be really tough in the second leg but we need to hope for a miracle. You never know, an early penalty for us and a red card for them and anything could happen. You can never give up hope in football.”