OH NEIL Lennon, you crazy, crazy fool. No-one used words like audacious to describe the Celtic manager when he was a player, one whose effectiveness lay in the way he kept the ball moving.
As a manager he has proved more willing to explore his looser side and here, on his biggest night, on his greatest stage, he went completely wild.
The news that Georgios Samaras had failed to recover in time was not greeted with any surprise; however, confirmation that Efe Ambrose was in the starting XI meant Lennon was placing great faith in the defender’s powers of recovery. It wasn’t just the Nigerian’s second significant match in 48 hours, it was his second match on two different continents.
On a night such as this one, anything seemed possible; all one had to do was plug in to the electric atmosphere. One wondered what the Green Brigade might have up their sleeve in the banner department. The answer arrived when a huge bit of cloth was unfurled just before kick-off depicting a re-creation of the Clash’s iconic London Calling album cover. The Paul Simonon figure smashing a guitar is doing so over a Juve badge. The banner aspired to set the tone. Juve, however, did the smashing – and then the grabbing, three times over.
Lennon clearly counted on Ambrose still having his ‘big game head’ on. Sadly, he looked dazed long before a mid-air collision with Victor Wanyama left him in a heap on the ground. A later-attempted pass-back from just inside his own half hurtled out for a corner and left Fraser Forster with arms out-stretched, exasperated.
It was a completely insane start to a tie that has been anticipated for eight weeks. Celtic managed to extinguish much of the hope that had been built-up in precisely three minutes. Poor old Ambrose, the dust of Johannesburg still clinging to his boots, was heavily involved in the mix-up that saw Alessandro Mati eventually credited with giving Juventus the lead, and it didn’t get much better for a man who Disney might consider featuring in a re-make of the Incredible Journey.
Remarkably, though, this goal was already against the run of play; and it didn’t alter the momentum thereafter either. Lennon’s other great conceit was that he reckoned he could line-up against the Italian champions with what looked at times like a 4-3-3 formation. More startling still was the employment of Gary Hooper at right-wing at times, with Kris Commons taking up a centre-forward position, although James Forrest also looked to be operating in this role on occasion. As we were saying; crazy. But admirably so.
And, if anything, it would have worked had Celtic taken even some of their early opportunities. Forget about the early goal and it is possible to claim that Celtic played an almost perfect opening 45 minutes, one that saw Juventus pinned back in their own half, in their own box, and left them resorting to strong-arm tactics at corners, where Hooper was being given particularly close attention. The Spanish referee seemed happy to ignore such goings-on.
As suspected, Juve seemed unfazed by the intensity of it all. Even though Celtic were pressing continuously, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon seemed set on throwing the ball out to his full-backs, from where Juventus would carefully construct their attacks. It was a lesson for those of us raised on a slightly more direct brand of football, although Celtic’s tactics, rooted in a more up and at ’em philosophy, had its own charm and should have brought them more reward than it ultimately did.
Ambrose re-appeared after the interval, with many predicting that he would be saved any more torment by being left in the dressing-room. Perhaps Lennon sensed that the night’s narrative arc would allow him to redeem himself, and the chance for the player to do so presented itself on the hour mark.
However, he could only direct a free header rather tamely into Buffon’s hands.
It was, perhaps, Celtic’s best opportunity to gain a foot-hold in the tie. A second goal with 14 minutes remaining, scored by Claudio Marchisio, seemed to signal the end of Celtic’s own great journey, while Marko Vucinic’s later strike confirmed it, surely. Celtic can console themselves with the thought that they went down fighting, as the banners implored them to do. ‘War is declared’, ‘battle come down’ were two lyrics borrowed from the Clash, and writ large in the corner of the ground. Perhaps Lennon might come to regret an adventurousness that while admirable, might also be interpreted as foolhardy.