Celtic must stop talismanic Juventus midfielder to have any hope of getting past The Old Lady
THERE is no equivocation from Neil Lennon over what must be Celtic’s formula for flourishing in the last 16 of the Champions League against Juventus. “If we are to prevail we have to stop [Andrea] Pirlo playing,” the Irishman says. Recognising the fact and making good on it are altogether different, however.
The bearded features of the midfielder, now 33, have served as the face of the Turin club in the acres of newsprint devoted to the tie since Thursday’s draw. The shorthand is entirely apposite since the old master is The Old Lady in microcosm. Resurgent following rejection, the present-day Pirlo, says Lennon, surpasses the one he faced while playing for Celtic against AC Milan in 2004, and 2007; the latter occasion a Champions League last 16 tie which proved the Italian club’s closest shave en route to winning the competition.
“He is a wonderful footballer and has probably got better. People say he doesn’t have the legs, but he does have the legs,” says the Celtic manager. “He’s a very good athlete. He might play at a different pace to everyone else, but because he’s so good, he can afford to do that. His passing with both feet is second to none: set-pieces, free kicks, corners, his delivery is excellent. I thought he had a great Euros, was Italy’s best player and one of the players of the tournament. That Italian team is made up predominantly of Juventus players and they were comfortable. I thought they handled Germany brilliantly [in the semi-final], and Germany were many people’s favourites. Then they came up against that golden team of Spain [in the final] who just have the edge on everyone at the minute.”
The 94-times capped Pirlo would be the midfielder of his generation but for those pesky Spanish aesthetes. His breathtaking chutzpah, to say nothing of his technique, in chipping England’s Joe Hart in the penalty shoot-out victory in the quarter-finals at Euro 2012, was eclipsed only by the ubiquity of his playmaking brilliance as the English, then the Germans, were bedazzled. AC Milan followers must have digested his tournament form with some grumbles. Pirlo headed to Poland and Ukraine having helped Juventus to capture Serie A by going through the entire season unbeaten. It was an achievement that completed their rehabilitation following their match-fixing demotion. This was Pirlo’s lot only a year on from the San Siro club discarding him. They did so amid suggestions that, five years after his assists allowed Italy to win the World Cup, and three years on from a last Champions League success, the man from Lombardy had lost his lustre.
Pirlo has made all the right noises about the potential difficulties posed by Celtic in February. Such talk may not be entirely empty. Ominiously, he has not produced a stand-out performance in five games against the Glasgow club, who also drew Milan in the 2007-8 group stages of the Champions League. The home win for Gordon Strachan’s side over the San Siro men represents the only victory in the club’s history against reigning European title holders. Lennon jokes he hardly gave Pirlo a kick in the last 16 ties of the 2006-7 campaign, 180 minutes yielding no goals before a brilliant individual goal in extra time by Kaka.
“That year was more about Kaka, [Clarence] Seedorf and [Filippo] Inzaghi,” recalls Lennon. “Pirlo just sat, with [Rino] Gattuso as enforcer, Seedorf to the left of him and Kaka playing off Inzaghi. They were an excellent side. When they beat us, they got a huge lift. It seemed to mean a lot to them. They got through to the quarter-finals and seemed to get a real taste for it. I remember them playing Man United at the San Siro [in the semi-final] and beating them by three. They were awesome that night and Pirlo was instrumental in that team.”
The names of Pirlo’s Juventus team-mates do not trip off the tongue but Lennon intends to know them inside out before the Turin side visit Celtic Park in seven weeks’ time, with trips planned to watch them home and away following Serie A’s festive break. The Celtic manager describes Juve as “a well-oiled machine”, and embraces the fact there will be a real cerebral side to his being pitted against counterpart Antonio Conte, who only this month returned following a four-month ban for not alerting the authorities to match-fixing activities when in charge of Siena.
“They’ve real quality and just when you think they’re not doing much in the game, they go bang, bang,” says Lennon. “They’re pretty clinical at times going forward. Technically, they’re very good, strong. I think it will be a tactical game. It will be pretty similar to facing the Portuguese teams, the Italians are similar in their approach to the games. The full-backs are very good. They like to get forward, try to suck you in and get them wide. They have plenty of pace in wide areas as well. In [Sebastian] Giovinco, they have a player with real flair who can make the difference playing the No.10 role very well.
“Coming from two goals down at Stamford Bridge shows they have a great mentality. They don’t know when they’re beaten. The Italian national side surprised a lot of people at the Euros. I thought the first game against Spain was one of the games of the tournament and they just seemed to grow from that.
“[Cesare] Prandelli, who was the Italy coach, was quite comfortable playing a three, and then going to a diamond in one of the games. The majority of that was because Juventus players know one another so well. They’re a very slick outfit, very slick. So, it’s all there for us. I don’t get excited very much these days, but I’m pretty excited about this.”
Celtic followers are over-excited about the chances of their side becoming the first Scottish team to reach the last eight of the Champions League in its current format. If they can beat Barcelona, then they can beat anyone, they say. Even apart from the fact that the Catalan club didn’t need to do anything against Celtic to qualify for the next stage of the tournament, the notion is too pat to stand up to scrutiny. Refreshingly, Celtic defender Efe Ambrose offers a counter-point. “We cannot use Barcelona to judge other teams,” says the Nigerian. “Juventus will have their own tactics and so will we so let’s see what happens. For the last three years they have been improving. They have a young team which is very hungry for success. But that works both ways because we at Celtic are very hungry too.”