WHEN it comes to Juventus, it is not so much the Old Lady as an old grievance as far as Celtic and Neil Lennon are concerned.
The Parkhead side were holding their own against the European aristocrats in a maiden adventure in the Champions League group stage 11 seasons ago when, with just minutes remaining, Nicola Amoruso was quick to take the chance to fall under a challenge by Celtic centre-half Joos Valgaeren.
The resultant penalty, scored by the felled player, saw Celtic lose in Turin by the odd goal in five. It was a harsh, harsh lesson on their return to the big stage – described as the side’s first “proper” European Cup fixture since 1988. Among the memories conjured up by yesterday’s Champions League draw, which has set up a highly attractive last 16 re-match, is Martin O’Neill’s meltdown on the touchline as his players despaired at Helmut Krug’s decision.
The game represents a running sore for Lennon too, to the extent that he couldn’t let it lie when Marcello Lippi, the Italian side’s manager that night, visited Scotland earlier this year for a coaching seminar. Having invited questions from the floor, Lippi fielded one from Lennon, who played in both clashes with Juventus in 2001. Lennon chose to begin by taking the legendary manager back to a sodden evening near the start of the millennium.
“Okay,” he said. “Eleven years ago in Turin. Was it a penalty?”
“Ah,” replied Lippi. “Some decisions you get, some decisions you don’t.”
Neither O’Neill nor Lennon were able to be quite so philosophical about things on the night in question. O’Neill had turned away from the incident in the box, not believing for a second that something might come from it. When he turned back, the referee was pointing to the penalty spot. O’Neill was dismissed to the stand after a burst of vehement protests.
“To be fair, you couldn’t blame him,” reflected Lennon yesterday. “We all felt incensed, we all felt a sense of injustice.”
Lennon couldn’t be sure whether it was the angriest he had ever seen his compatriot during spells with both Leicester and Celtic. “You haven’t seen him in his office with me,” he smiled.
“We had come back from 2-0 down, [David] Trezeguet had scored two that night,” Lennon continued. “We didn’t play well in the first half but played really well in the second half. If a decision like that had gone against me, as a manager, I would have been just as incensed.”
The return match at Parkhead, where Celtic won 4-3, was a happier occasion, although there was another sting in the tail for the Scots when Porto qualified ahead of them after winning on the same night against Rosenborg.
Still, it ranks as one of the “highlights” of Lennon’s playing career, and the victory held a special significance for the Northern Irishman who, like many of his vintage, grew up in thrall to Juventus.
“Juventus were all in black that night, in front of a packed house,” the manager recalled. “[Lubomir] Moravcik at his best, [Didier] Agathe at his best, Henrik [Larsson] and Chris [Sutton] playing so well – they were all the ingredients for one of those epic nights. Trezeguet came on, scored two beauties. [Alessandro] Del Piero scored with a free kick. You had everything in the game that you could want. I’m hoping for more of the same from these two ties.”
Lennon kept his composure when watching the Italian club’s name picked out after Celtic’s at just before 11am yesterday. The players and management team gathered in the canteen at the club’s training base in Lennoxtown to watch the draw. Danny McGrain sat next to Lennon in the front row. You can’t imagine it was like this in his day. Instead, Jock Stein or Billy McNeill might casually mention who they had been drawn against at the end of training. The Champions League is no place for understatement, however.
Fraser Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper who had expressed a desire to be pitted against the legendary Juventus ’keeper Gigi Buffon, couldn’t watch, and left for a “comfort break”. When Celtic’s opponents were confirmed, a smile crept across full-back Mikael Lustig’s face. He had wanted Juventus, a team he grew up supporting in Sweden on account of star striker Del Piero. Scott Brown, too, was receiving backslaps, perhaps in recognition of the time he went head-to-head with Andrea Pirlo, the current Juventus playmaker, when Celtic faced AC Milan, the Italian player’s former club, in the Champions League in 2007. Lennon, meanwhile, looked satisfied. It could have been better, it could have been worse.
“A few of them [the players] have childhood memories of Juventus,” said the manager. “It is a great club with magnificent tradition. They have been out of the picture for a few years, but I think this team fancy bringing the glory days back again.”
Indeed, as well as Celtic, there was news to hearten Rangers yesterday. Juventus’s travails in recent seasons prove that it is possible to return to the pinnacle of the club game despite being forcibly relegated. Juventus were demoted to Serie B after a match-fixing scandal in 2006. As well as being restored as champions of Italy, Juventus have also been re-housed, switching from the often atmosphere-challenged Stadio delle Alpi to the new Juventus Stadium, where they are unbeaten this season.
Lennon is keen to sample what the new ground is like as he prepares to start compiling a tactical dossier on the side; one likely to include one urgent recommendation – keep the ball away from Pirlo. “If you are to prevail, then he is the one you have to keep an eye on,” he said of the 33 year-old.
But the Celtic manager can’t complain. This is what it is all about for him and his players as they prepare to mix again with glamorous opponents while not forgetting their own deeds in this tournament mark them out as being worthy of respect.
“I have a soft spot for Juventus as well because growing up they were the Italian team of that era, the late Seventies and early Eighties,” added Lennon. “They had [Michel] Platini, Roberto Bettega, [Zbigniew] Boniek and people like that.
“They were fantastic to watch. I have my own memories of playing against them too. They were two titanic games.”
And now there is the promise of two more to come.
TEN FACTS ABOUT JUVENTUS
1) Their original colour of strip was pink, until they were inspired to change it to black and white after a visit by English club Notts County in 1905.
2) Juventus were the first club to win every possible trophy – the European Cup, the European Cup-Winners Cup, the UEFA Cup, the European Super Cup and the Club World Championship. They managed it by 1985.
3) Legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff played an amazing 322 consecutive games for the club.
4) Juventus have lost five out of seven European Cup and Champions League Finals, including their last three.
5) Juventus played 17 consecutive away games in the Champions League without recording a win. After beating Dinamo Kiev away in March 1998, the Italian side had to wait until they met the same opponents in November 2002.
6) They attracted an attendance of just 237 at home against Sampdoria in the 2001-2002 Coppa Italia game. Cold weather and live TV coverage were blamed.
7) Juve have won 53 trophies. They include 28 Serie A titles, nine Italian Cups, five Italian Super Cups, two Champions Leagues, one Cup Winners-Cup, three Uefa Cups, two European Super Cups and two World Club Championships and the Inter-Toto Cup.
8)Two Scots have managed Juventus. William Aitken from 1928 to 1939 and Willie Chalmers from 1948 to 1949. Both played for Rangers in their careers.
9) Juve were relegated in 2006 for the first time in their history as a result of the Serie A match-fixing scandal.
10) Juventus means Youth in Latin.