IF CELTIC have to exit the Champions League it’s as well that they depart with a gripe. Useful things, gripes.
Neil Lennon will look at it like this: If Senor Mallenco had done his job at dead-ball situations then Juventus would have had a red card and Celtic would have had a penalty and so long as Scott Brown or Charlie Mulgrew didn’t take it, they might have had an equaliser – and hope. That’s the narrative of the night as far as Lennon is concerned. Sometimes there’s comfort in ‘If only . . .’
Yes, Juventus won by three wounding goals, but would the rout ever have happened if the referee had backed up his admonishment of Stephan Lichtsteiner with the ultimate sanction? In the months ahead, until such time as their next shot at the Champions League comes around, Lennon will reassure himself in the belief that it could have, would have, been different had the referee been brave.
His team gave him that much. They gave him reason to believe that though they are effectively out, they still belong in this company. In their general play on Tuesday night, their hard pressing in the first half and the 17 attempts on Juve’s goal over the course of the match illustrated the maturity of Lennon’s coaching and the ability of his players to execute – to a point – what he tells them. They all but eliminated the great Andrea Pirlo from relevance. Pity they couldn’t do the same with Efe Ambrose, a one-man wrecking crew in Celtic’s drive for the last eight.
Lennon has got so much right in this campaign, has taken his team to a place where nobody outside the club thought they were capable of reaching. But that does not pardon him from criticism. The Celtic manager took a giant gamble on Am- brose against Juventus and he got it wrong. This is not being wise after the event for the warning lights were flashing in the preamble when it was clear that he was seriously considering taking the Nigerian from an airport runway to the heart of his back four in such a momentous match.
Ambrose had played the biggest game of his life on Sunday. His emotions, in victory for his country in the Cup of Nations, could only be guessed at, but it’s fair to say that his head was in another stratosphere in celebrating that achievement. He said he was ready for Juventus and Lennon took him at his word. Sometimes managers cannot take a player’s view as gospel, though. This was one of those instances. Managers are paid to make the big decisions. Lennon made a big one with Ambrose and he paid a heavy price for it. The Nigerian was not at the races.
Lennon’s counterpart, Antonio Conte, had a similar choice to make. Kwadwo Asamoah has been one of his most important players in recent seasons, a veritable colossus in his defence and midfield. In South Africa, Asamoah played for Ghana in the bronze-medal match last Saturday and had a full 24 hours’ more recovery time than Ambrose and much less emotion to deal with. And yet Conte didn’t play him. He didn’t even have him in the squad. Sure, the Juventus manager could replace Asamoah more readily than Lennon could have replaced Ambrose, but replace him Lennon most certainly could have.
On the opening night of their Champions League story, Celtic drew 0-0 at Parkhead against a dangerous Benfica side. Mikael Lustig played centre-half in that match – and played well. So Lustig was an option on Tuesday night, an option that would also have allowed Adam Matthews to start at full-back. Matthews has been outstanding all season, including on the night of the win over Barcelona in Glasgow. Lennon had very specific reasons why he made the call on Ambrose, but it was an unnecessary risk.
The controversy of the unpunished wrestling and the saga of Ambrose all add up to frustration but there is nothing wrong with frustration. If Lennon’s team had been done in cold blood and had nothing to complain about on the night then they would feel an awful lot worse about themselves today. They would feel like small boys out of their depth, but they weren’t. Sometimes a manager can clutch at straws and kid himself on, but Lennon can legitimately wonder what might have been had a penalty been awarded at 1-0. That great unknown might feel like torture now, but in time he’ll take solace from it.
The tie is dead, but there’s no disgrace in that. Far from it. This has been a hell of a ride in Europe; unexpected and fabulously lucrative. By the time this adventure finishes next month Celtic will have made more than £20 million in revenue but the pounds and pence are only one side of the tale. What the Champions League showed is that Lennon (the Ambrose miscalculation aside) is a seriously clever tactician who has built a side that looks comfortable on the biggest stage. This team has given Scottish football a lift when it desperately needed it. It has taken the country to the last 16 in Europe when many thought those days were over. It beat Barcelona when nobody in the world thought it possible.
By the time they have another stab at joining the elite they might look a little different. You’d have to think that Gary Hooper will have departed by then and it’s clear that Arsenal – and probably others - are taking an interest in Victor Wanyama. Those guys might go, but the riches the club have just earned will help them target new blood. They may have failed on Tuesday, but this still feels like a success story.