CELTIC manager Neil Lennon last night reflected with pride on his team’s Champions League efforts this season, but admitted a gulf in quality was the main reason for their last 16 exit against Juventus.
Goals from Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella earned the Italian champions a 2-0 second leg victory in Turin, completing a 5-0 aggregate defeat for Celtic which is the heaviest they have suffered in their European history.
While the final scoreline did not fully reflect Celtic’s contribution to the tie, especially for sizeable spells last night in a 90 minutes which saw them have more possession than their hosts, Lennon accepted that Juventus were simply superior in key elements of the game.
“The difference is quality,” said Lennon. “Quality counts and that was the difference between the teams over both games.
“The difference is the quality in the final third. We had good chances again tonight and we didn’t take them.
“We played some really good football, we had really good spells in either half but we missed what I think were really good chances to win the game or to get back into the game.
“It might be a handicap that we are probably about £100million behind most of the other squads in the last 16 of the Champions League.
“We have proved that you can play in the SPL and also compete in the Champions League this season. So that argument is moot. The difference is that the bigger clubs have far more significant spending power and stronger squads.
“You only had to look at the Juventus bench tonight to see how strong it was, filled with some superb players allied to the ones already on the pitch.”
Lennon’s preparations for the game were disrupted by Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose missing the bus to training yesterday morning. But, although Lennon confirmed Ambrose was disciplined, he insisted it was not the reason he began the evening among the substitutes before replacing Victor Wanyama at half-time.
“There was disciplinary action taken against him,” said Lennon. “But it wouldn’t have affected the team selection tonight.”
Asked to confirm that Ambrose failed to make the bus on time, an irked Lennon replied: “That is what happened. It was this morning. Is this the best line of questioning you can do here? Are we not going to talk about the game? Are we going to talk about things that aren’t important?”
Lennon was happier to assess how his team have developed during the Champions League campaign and whether he can keep the bulk of his squad intact for another crack at the elite tournament.
“We probably won’t know until next season how much the team has grown,” said Lennon.
“It would be a travesty for the players not to progress their careers, having achieved so much in this campaign and having played against some of the best teams and best players in the world. I would hope they will learn from it.
“It’s going to be very difficult to keep the team together. I think some of them want to progress their careers maybe out of Scotland. It’s difficult to stop that progression. We are doing our job, we are bringing these young players in, developing them and, hopefully, selling them on for significantly more than what we paid.
“We’ll have a look at things and see how players are feeling at the end of the season. We have a championship to win, we are in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup and we have just come off an unbelievable experience in the Champions League.
“We hope to keep players but we have already offered contracts to a couple of players [Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama] that you know of already. You know that those contracts have been knocked back so far.
“We’ll try to go back and work on that, but the environment we play in means it is always difficult to keep them. The lure of the Champions League is a great incentive and a great carrot for the players, though.
“Certainly, with what they’ve experienced this year – the games at Celtic Park, here at Juventus, the Nou Camp – it might be an attractive proposition for a lot of players.
“You always want more. I think over the two games against Juventus we played very well but we were just a little bit short in some areas. There is no disgrace in that. Juventus are a fantastic team with a great work ethic. Maybe they don’t have the flamboyance of a Barcelona but they work so hard for each other, have great balance and are a threat going forward. They’ve got a great chance of winning it and I hope they do win it because you always want to go out to the eventual winners.
“I don’t see any reason why Juventus can’t win it. They’ve got as good a chance as anyone. Over the last 18 months they have been fantastically consistent. At home in Turin, it’s a fortress. Juventus will be there or thereabouts in the last three or four and might go on and win it. I hope they do, I sincerely mean that.
“There are some other fantastic teams still in the competition. Bayern Munich, if they get past Arsenal, will be strong candidates. Borussia Dortmund also look a fantastic team with pace and quality.
“It’s disappointing from a British point of view that we have lost ourselves and Manchester United this week, while Chelsea and Manchester City went out earlier.”