NEIL Lennon described last night’s 3-0 home reverse to Juventus as the “harsh reality of football at this level”, although the Celtic manager conceded that he might do things differently were he given the chance to pick his side again.
“Maybe it was a bit of a gamble,” he said, with specific reference to the selection of Efe Ambrose who, after playing for Nigeria on Sunday night in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, started his second match in 48 hours yesterday.
The Juventus fans celebrated a result that they expect has already smoothed their side’s passage into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Lennon admitted the deficit was “insurmountable, almost” ahead of the second leg in Turin next month.
There was an element of regret for the manager, who included Ambrose and then watched as the defender was heavily implicated in the loss of the opening goal, after only three minutes.
However, Lennon also insisted that his side were poorly served by Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco, who appeared unwilling to penalise the several incidents when Celtic players were man-handled by their opponents in the penalty box.
“It is not rugby we are playing, it is soccer,” he said.
“I would like to ask the Italian journalists what they made of the way Juventus marked our players. It seemed to me that they were fouling them at every opportunity, the referee was warned by our players to keep an eye on it, and he ignored our requests. Every time we went to lose our marker we were being hauled back.
“Are the rules different in Spain and Italy to what they are in Britain?”
“I made it clear to the players that they were to flag it up to the referee and they did but he just ignored it.”
Celtic, though, had no answer to Juventus’ clinical finishing, and it was an uphill struggle from as early as the third minute, when Alessandro Matri put his side ahead after a mix-up in the home defence involving Ambrose, whose participation had not been expected.
Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic added late goals to further deflate Celtic.
“We have a three-week period between now and the second-leg,”said Lennon. “We know it’s a daunting prospect going to Turin at any time, never mind when three goals down.”
Ambrose only arrived back in Scotland from South Africa late on Monday night, after helping his country lift the Africa Nations title against Burkina Faso. Inevitably, he was at the centre of things, caught cold at the start when he allowed Matri to elude him and then he was again at fault in the second half when failing to take Celtic’s best opportunity of the night with a free header in front of goal.
“He was caught for the first goal, it was nothing to do with tiredness,” said Lennon. “I thought once he got over that he was fine. There was no sign of tiredness when he went up the park and should have scored, really. That is just a bad miss.
“You question decisions in hindsight. Maybe it was a bit of a gamble,” he added. “But I can’t really criticise the team, apart from that final bit of quality to get us a goal. Our build-up play was fantastic. Pirlo and Vidal had no impact for long periods of the game.”
“We needed a goal,” Lennon added. “Efe had his chance with a header [at 1-0]. If that goes in, the tie was alive. The tie was alive in any case at 1-0. But, at 1-1, it would have galvanised us.
“But it wasn’t to be. The second goal burst the bubble a little bit. When you make mistakes at this level you get punished.”
“We did not get off to a good start, obviously. But our reaction from the goal was fantastic. We were on the front foot, we were the better side, we pressurised Juventus into making mistakes. Particularly in the first half, our energy and qualify were as good as we have shown here for quite a while.
“We have to now try to be competitive and try to work our way into the tie. I said to the players at half-time that, at 1-0, there is a long way to go in the second half, but heads went down after the second goal. We looked a bit ragged.”
Forward Kris Commons, meanwhile, did not spare Ambrose, who he suggested should have indicated to Lennon that he was not in a fit state to play.
Instead, the defender had assured the manager that he felt fine.
“It was just very sloppy, individual mistakes, something you’d probably get away with on a playground, not in the last 16 of the Champions League,” said Commons.
“There are certain individuals who let the team down tonight. In the SPL ou can get away with not quite playing.
“You can get away with just turning up and things happening.
“You can make mistakes and people don’t punish you. At this level you clearly can’t afford to make mistakes. If you do you end up coming away from a 3-0 defeat.”
Asked about Ambrose in particular, Commons said: “Look, the manager picked him.The manager pulled him to one side and asked him if he was feeling okay. He said he was feeling brilliant.
“You know, if he wasn’t eeling okay then he should have said so.
“If he felt good then he should have put in a better performance.”
Emilio Izaguirre revealed that he had sought to alert the referee to Juve’s holding tactics in the box by speaking to him in Spanish. However, it was to no avail. “The referee did not seem to see too much,” he said.
“There was two yellow cards for the Juventus players for doing it but there were no penalties.
“I spoke to him in Spanish,” added Izaguirre.
“Every time there was a corner or a free-kick, I was saying to him about the fouls and pointing them out, but he wasn’t listening to me.”