ONE defeat cannot completely remove the gloss from Celtic’s admirable Champions League efforts this season but the nature of their irretrievable loss to Juventus last night was an undeniably dulling experience for Neil Lennon and his crestfallen players.
Scorers: Matri 3, Marchisio 77, Vucinic 83
Referee: A Undiano Mallenco (Spa)
The expectations built up by the manner of their progress to the last 16 of Europe’s elite tournament were shattered by the bleakly effective Italian champions.
The second leg in Turin on 6 March has been all but stripped of significance for Celtic now after being undone by the strategic nous and clinical finishing of Antonio Conte’s men.
Lennon was bold in his pursuit of a result which would give Celtic a chance of reaching the quarter-finals, deploying a startlingly attack-minded side. But it was his decision to risk the inclusion of Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose so soon after his return from Africa Cup of Nations duty which backfired for the Celtic manager.
Ambrose endured a wretched night, at fault for two of the Juventus goals and also missing a glorious chance to score for Celtic when they were still just 1-0 down.
On the eve of the contest, Lennon had expressed his pride at giving the Celtic support something to dream about once more. But his team’s start here was the stuff of his worst nightmares with the desperately poor concession of Juventus’ third minute opener.
Yet it might so easily have been the home side who got off to the flying start. Barely 60 seconds had elapsed when Victor Wanyama strode forward and unleashed a powerful drive from around 25 yards. Gianluigi Buffon, in the eyes of many observers the finest goalkeeper in the world, was almost caught cold and looked less than convincing as he staggered to his left to bundle the ball behind for a corner.
It was hesitant goalkeeping at the other end, however, which would prove so costly for Celtic and give Juventus such a precious early advantage. Ambrose, something of a surprise inclusion in the home defence after helping Nigeria to Africa Cup of Nations glory in Johannesburg just 48 hours earlier, lost out to Matri in the battle for a through ball in which he had looked favourite.
That perhaps accounted for Fraser Forster’s delayed reaction as he came off his line to try and beat Matri to the loose ball. The big keeper, being watched by England manager Roy Hodgson, could not get there in time and Matri poked it beyond him towards the empty net. Mikael Lustig’s attempt to clear off the line proved in vain, Claudio Marchisio driving it home for good measure before the goal was eventually credited to Matri.
Celtic had no option but to respond with pace, urgency and directness. In fairness, that had looked to be Lennon’s strategy in any case as he deployed what was effectively a front three with James Forrest and Kris Commons pushed up alongside Gary Hooper.
Celtic were trying to dictate the pace of the contest, refusing to allow Juventus to settle into the more studied rhythm with which they have enjoyed such success over the past couple of seasons.
Buffon was quickly called into action again, looking far more assured as he held another fine long range effort from Wanyama.
With Celtic committing so many players to advanced position, Juventus were able to threaten with the most basic of counter-attacking moves. They came close to doubling their lead when Marchisio got on the end of Federico Peluso’s cross from the left and volleyed over from close range.
It was a risk Celtic were prepared to run. Full-backs Emilio Izaguirre and Lustig both surged forward at every opportunity and it was the Honduran who set up Celtic’s next chance, his cross from the left cleared only as far as Commons whose well struck first time drive was saved smartly by Buffon.
As Lennon had predicted, the midfield battle was attritional at times. But it was the stuff of the playground midway through the first half when Celtic captain Scott Brown’s frustration got the better of him as he aimed a slap at Andrea Pirlo. Fortunately for Brown, it escaped the attention of Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco.
It was Celtic who had cause to curse Senor Mallenco’s leniency towards the end of the first period. Having booked both Hooper and Stephan Lichtsteiner for grappling in the six yard box as they awaited the delivery of a corner kick, the official then allowed the Juventus player to get away with exactly the same offence when the set piece was delivered.
Hooper found himself on the end of similar treatment at Celtic’s next corner, but appeals for a penalty kick went unheeded as an Lennon made his displeasure clear to the fourth official on the touchline.
Celtic could by no means be said to have performed poorly in an absorbing first half but they were simply being out-manouvered by a typically streetwise Italian side.
Lennon’s men remained undaunted, continuing to press and probe for a chink in the Juventus armour as the second half proceeded at a similarly breathless tempo.
The referee incurred the wrath of the home fans once more when he waved play on after Izaguirre seemed to have been blatantly fouled by Leonardo Bonucci in a dangerous position on the edge of the penalty area.
Celtic made their first change just before the hour mark, Lustig limping off to be replaced by Adam Matthews, and they should have been on level terms soon afterwards.
Commons, the most imaginative and effective of Celtic’s attacking players, wrong-footed the Juventus defence by playing a corner short to Mulgrew. His cross picked out the unmarked Ambrose around six yards out but the big defender wasted what was a glorious chance, tamely directing his header down into the turf for the ball to bounce straight into the arms of Buffon.
Brown then drilled in a low shot which ricocheted to safety as Celtic largely stayed on the front foot. But there was always the lurking threat of Juventus plundering a second goal and Forster did well to deny Mirko Vucinic with his feet when the Montenegren striker found space in the box.
Lennon sent on Tony Watt for Commons in the 73rd minute but there was to be no fairytale contribution this time from the young man who scored the winner against Barcelona in the group stage.
Instead, Celtic found themselves 2-0 down just four minutes later and already facing an insurmountable deficit in the tie. It was Marchisio, outstanding all evening, who delivered the blow as he latched onto Matri’s pass and cut inside Brown before beating Forster at his near post with a firm shot.
Celtic were reeling and before they could take stock of their predicament, the roof well and truly fell in on them when Juventus made it 3-0. It was another calamity for Ambrose, dispossessed cheaply by Marchisio as he tried to play the ball out from the back, the ball fed to Vucinic who gave Forster no chance with a precise, low shot.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Matthews 58), Ambrose, Wilson, Izaguirre; Brown (Kayal 80), Wanyama, Mulgrew; Commons (73), Hooper, Forrest. Subs not used: Zaluska, Miku, Nouioui, Ledley.
Juventus: Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Caceres; Lichsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Peluso (Padoin 69); Matri (Pogba 80), Vucinic (Anelka 86). Subs not used: Storari, Giovinco, Quagliarella, Marrone.
Fraser Forster - Had a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go moment at the Juve opener, being slow to come out to face the danger and couldn’t pull off any of those big saves when confronted by the shots that brought the other two goals. 5/10
Mikael Lustig - Left the field after 57 minutes clutching his thigh having proved a sound and strong presence until his loss. The fact the goals came from the side he had vacated and Matthews took up perhaps tells its own story. 7
Efe Ambrose - His howler in dozily allowing Matri to get goalside for the second-minute opener will be put down to his only being in Scotland for a matter of hours following five weeks away winning the Africa Cup of Nations. In truth, he always has the odd harem-scarem moment in him. 5
Kelvin Wilson - Grew into the immense challenge of coping with the impressive Italian frontline and seemed to settle his own defensive partner. 6
Emilio Izaguirre - His maurading runs down the left were a real attacking outlet and he looked back to the player he was before the leg break. 7
Scott Brown - The snapping and the snarling and the odd underhit pass were all there from the captain, whose spat with Pirlo was priceless. Yanked off to prevent a sending off after being booked with quarter an hour to go. 6
Victor Wanyama - Having initially looked set to boss the encounter, his moments of strength and sleekness, were interspersed with others of slackness. 6
Charlie Mulgrew - In his specialist left-midfield Champions League role, the fact he was part of a three-man area gave him an even more difficult shift. One of those who faded badly in the second period. 6
James Forrest - In-and-out of an encounter in which he was pushed into a more orthodox forward role, the youngster had some bright touches in the opening period and did carry a threat, to Pirlo as well as the opponents’ goal, with a booking for a late lunge on the playmaker. 6
Kris Commons - Celtic possessed craft, played intelligent football, and he was right at the heart of it. Took the ball in brilliantly and had several efforts on goal. Ran out of puff. 7
Gary Hooper - Wrestling may have lost its Olympic status but it seemed to have legitimacy in football for the despairing Englishman who seemed on the end of two fall and a submission in the crazy grappling that characterised Celtic corners. It earned him a booking. 5
Adam Matthews - Will cringe when he thinks of two breaks down his side resulting in two goals across his half hour on the park. 3
Tony Watt - Given the last 18 minutes to conjure a rabbit out of a hat. He failed to produce. 4
Beram Kayal - Sent on to protect Brown from himself ten minutes from the end. 3
Gianluigi Buffon - Pre-match had seemed untroubled at the thought of playing in ‘fortress Parkhead’ and a series of long-range shots didn’t trouble his equilibrium, or his goal. His handling was what you would expect from an Italian grandee. 7
Andrea Barzagli - Didn’t look the most comfortable in the air but his ability to cover the yards rapidly bailed him out on a couple of crucial occasions. 6
Leonardo Bonucci - The Italian internationalist’s typical assurance was not in evidence as the visitors’ backline came under real pressure but, as has often been his national team’s way, he scrambled through. 6
Martin Caceres - Wasn’t slow to use means as foul as they were fair to contain the home team. 6
Stephan Lichtsteiner - His role appeared to pull Gary Hooper any way he could to stop the striker getting too close to Buffon, which resulted in the midfielder and his Celtic adversary receiving cautions in 36 minutes. Lucky not to be sent off. 5
Arturo Vidal - Hirpled off midway through the second period, having proved something of a Gattuso-esque presence in stepping up the physical challenge. 7
Andrea Pirlo - Sported the look of a man attending the dentist to have his two front teeth removed, and did not seem to appreciate the close attentions and thundering tackles. Never produced any of his visionary passes. 6
Claudio Marchisio - Neil Lennon had spoken of the clinical nature of Juventus going forward and the striker illustrated that point all too painfully when cut inside Matthews and drilled it through Forster for the tie-ending second goal. 7
Federico Peluso - On the left of midfield, he was responsible for the hard grafting before replaced by Padoin in 68 minutes. 6
Alessandro Matri - He didn’t just have Ambrose on toast for the decisive first strike, he had him buttered and jammed before darting away from the Nigerian and beating Forster. Scored without a boot at the weekend, scored when there had hardly been a kick last night. 8
Mirko Vucinic - Oozed class, his deft touches and superb movement were a nightmare for a player who deserved his 83rd-minute strike that provided his team with a third goal. 8
Simone Padoin - His first and only notable moment was a booking for an altercation with Brown shortly after his 68th minute arrival. 4
Paul Pogba - The former Manchester United man was sent on to shore-up the visitors’ 2-0 lead, only to then have a hand in extending it. 4
Nicolas Anelka - The appearance of the Frenchman in the closing minutes seemed more to do about giving the visiting fans the opportunity to applaud the man he replaced – Vucinic. 3