FINALLY, the ‘not looking any further ahead than the next game’ adage need not be met with groans from reporters, who have been unable to resist looking ahead to this week’s last 16 Champions League tie between Celtic and Juventus since the moment it was drawn, way back in mid-December.
At long last, Celtic players are happy to speak about the Old Lady. The first leg of the glamour tie now actually is the next game. Kris Commons has now no reason to pretend he is not seeing black-and-white stripes in his sleep.
It has been two years since the player made a goal-scoring start to his Celtic career in a 4-1 League Cup semi-final win against Aberdeen. Announcing himself in some style, he then managed a goal in his Old Firm derby a week later. The time since has been quite a period for the midfielder, one not without its frustrations. Commons has endured spells on the sidelines due to form and fitness issues but illustrating just how central he is to Celtic’s cause in this week of all weeks was manager Neil Lennon’s decision to hand him only a half on Saturday, when Celtic travelled to Inverness.
It helped keep the player “ticking over” for Juventus, according to the manager. He cannot fail to have been impressed by Commons’ goal in the Highlands, which cancelled out Inverness’s opener and set Celtic on the way to a 3-1 win. It was also the kind of strike Lennon likes to see – powerfully struck, no messing about.
It put one in mind of the penalty strike by Commons that secured Celtic’s qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League, against Spartak Moscow. The midfielder hadn’t quite realised what was at stake, since news that Benfica were holding Barcelona to a surprise goalless draw had not filtered through to him. He gave the penalty an almighty whack. The ball hit the bar, and ricocheted down into the goal. Celtic were through.
It seems a long time ago. So, too, does the draw, where a tie with the Italian champions was Celtic’s reward for negotiating such a tough qualifying group.
Now the challenge is to meet the moment and ensure that the opportunity presented does not slip from the grasp of the players. Commons can’t bear the thought of leaving the pitch tomorrow night, with the tie only half-completed, and knowing it is already beyond them. He is aware, too, just how easy it is for footballers to get caught in the (flood)lights, particularly on European nights, when the blood is up and cool heads are few and far between.
“It’s been a long time coming,” agreed Commons, when asked whether it was a relief to finally be able to focus on the tie. “I just hope it doesn’t pass us by and we can take the opportunity to put in a performance we know we are capable of at Celtic Park. Once that music starts and the crowd gets behind us; it is moments like that when you are blessed to be a footballer.”
Commons made a game attempt at trying to put into words what it felt like to walk out into Celtic Park on a Champions League night, with the mix of music and cheers filling the players’ ears. “It is a weird feeling,” he said. “You try and stay as calm as possible. You try not to take anything in. You get all this advice; ‘don’t let the crowd affect how you play’. But it is hard to do that.
“I am 29,” he added. “My experience has told me to try and concentrate on your game and try and ignore the crowd. But when you are top and you are playing well you want to lift them. It gives you inspiration. When we are putting pressure on Juventus, they will be thinking: ‘we are in for a rough ride’.”
Commons accepts that Celtic cannot rely on the atmosphere alone to put the frighteners on Juventus, who have experienced such frenzied occasions many times before. They will be well-practised at shutting out the surrounding bedlam and getting on with playing their normal game. “When it comes to the crunch, all 11 players on the park will have to raise it a little more,” he said, having already voiced the opinion that keeping a clean sheet tomorrow could be “key” to their chance of progressing.
“Juventus are no mugs. It’s not as if they have never seen this sort of atmosphere before,” he added. “They have played in similar atmosphere and they get paid incredible wages to deal with that, and most of them are international footballers anyway. They will be used to that. But the sort of atmosphere at Celtic Park gives us a lift, and increases our game. That is why we are more than capable of beating the best in Europe; because of our fans.”
They have done this once already this season, against Barcelona. Commons does not view the prospect of facing Juventus as being any tougher. However, he added: “We are playing for something a lot bigger, the prize is a lot bigger at the end of it.”
Just over two years ago, Commons was playing for Derby County. Now he has the opportunity to reach the last eight of the Champions League, and he can’t be the only one in the Celtic ranks thinking, is this really happening? “Obviously, it’s the biggest game of my career,” he said. “There’s not many guys in our dressing-room who can say they have had this chance before.” Commons had time for a quick quip before resuming preparations, with “identifying [Juve’s] strengths and weaknesses” on the schedule for today at Lennoxtown.
Their opponents are scheduled to be putting the final touches to their own pre-match preparations at a training ground not too far away. “They can train in my backyard, it doesn’t make any difference to me,” shrugged Commons, when asked whether he had an opinion on Rangers offering the use of their training facilities to the Italians. “If they want to play at a Division Three training ground, then let them get on with it.”