Tom English: Celtic discover it’s tough at the top

CELTIC learned something during their Champions League tie against Juventus, writes Tom English - that there is no such thing as fairness at this punishing level.

They went down screaming and kicking, but down they went. Down and out in a cacophony, their Champions League fate now sealed but for the funereal march to Turin early next month. On a night of Celtic colour and Celtic noise all we could hear by the end were the chants of the Bianconeri tucked away in a riotous corner of the stadium. They were roaring at 1-0, they were joyous when it became two and at three, well, there was serenading going on a grand scale.

Nobody living outside lalaland will be surprised that
Juventus proved too strong, but the manner of their victory, the epic sweep of it was a shock and in his heart of hearts it must have brought more than just regret for Neil Lennon. It must have brought that sinking feeling of an error made even before a ball had been kicked.

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Lennon gambled on Efe Ambrose at the heart of his defence eventhough Ambrose was barely off a plane from South Africa where, on Sunday, he experienced the high of winning the Cup of Nations with Nigeria. Lennon gambled that Ambrose could get his feet back on earth and his head down from the clouds in time for last night. He was here in body, but maybe not all here in mind. Ambrose was culpable for Juventus’ first and third goals and in-between, when the tie was still alive at 1-0, he missed a sitter down the other end. That thudding sound we heard on full time was Ambrose crashing back to reality.

You can’t pin all of this on the defender, though. That would be too easy and too unfair on Juventus who struck early, then weathered a Celtic storm for the remainder of the first half before slowly quashing the home spirit as the night went on. Earlier, there had been aggravation and hassle at Celtic corner kicks, there had been outrage at Juve grappling Celtic players prior to the delivery of the dead ball, there had been pleas for the referee to do something, anything. Nothing happened. By the end, Celtic could hardly muster a moan. Or, at least, not one that had any merit. The goals at the end might have been unfair on Lennon’s team but what’s fair got to do with it? It’s a punishing world up there with the elite. Too punishing.

This was more than a football match. For some, it was a sort of homecoming. Before the lights went out a million watts of electricity surged through a city. On the train pulling into Queen Street there were two Glaswegians exiled in America; home for one reason and one reason only. On the route from the station to the stadium the hype and the hoopla and the songs burst through the windows and doors of the pubs along the way.

The atmosphere was but one indication of the special nature of the night; the cool of the Italians being the other. Intimidated? Andrea Pirlo gazed about the place with an expressionless face. Gianluigi Buffon took in the scene without giving a hint of emotion, Mirko Vucinic looked at ease, almost as at ease as Claudio Marchisio. Their calm was a reminder that this was big-time football against big-time players. Big-time players who took less than three minutes to drive a big-time dagger into the hearts of their hosts.

This was the haunting fear come true. Months of plotting and planning and dreaming that an attacking formation was the way to go. No Georgios Samaras last night, but hopes rested on the rock of a defence that has taken them so far and a goalkeeper to rank with the best in the competition.

The defining moment came so early and so improbably that it almost happened in slow motion. A punt upfield and a misjudgement from Ambrose. Suddenly Alessandro Matri is one-on-one with Forster and for the first time in this tournament Forster looks lost. What odds that errors from Ambrose and the goalkeeper would cost a goal? What odds!

It changed the dynamic of the game in different ways. Juventus would not have expected to score so early. Maybe they didn’t expect to score at all. A goal-less draw would have done them nicely. If you’d asked Conte beforehand which would he rather, a goal-less draw on Tuesday or a night of sex on Wednesday he would have replied ‘What’s the difference?’ As Liam Brady said last week: “Juve would see 0-0 as a fanastic result. That’s not so much in their heads as in their blood.” But 3-0? This was footballing porn as far as the Bianconeri were concerned.

Not that it matters now, but at 1-0 Juve looked a little confused for a spell. Their passing went awry, their composure was lost, their goal came under siege and with it went their gameplan that is built on a foundation of organisation and accuracy. They weren’t themselves for much of the rest of the half. That farce at corners began as the half wore on. Lennon went potty, but the wrestling continued. A few yellow cards was the extent of the punishment. Celtic howled for a penalty instead.

In fairness, their responseto the shock of Matri’s goal was a verve that threatened to over-run the Italians. In the opening fifteen minutes they had seven shots on Buffon’s goal. As the minutes wore on those attempts hit double figures. Victor Wanyama had a shot saved by Buffon, Kris Commons the same.

The most dangerous looking attacker was not the multi-million pound signings in black but the bloke Lennon bought for 300 grand. Juve might have been expecting a handful from Hooper but he was shut down. Instead they got it from the intelligent player running free beside him. At least for a little while.

Celtic had 15 attempts on goal in the first half (Juve had five) and close to half a dozen of them came from Commons, the most notable being an overhead kick that that bounced wide of Buffon’s right-hand post with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. This was the essential difference between this night and the nights that preceded it in this competition. In other games, that Commons bicycle kick would have gone the right side of the post. In other games, Celtic would have somehow escaped when Matri played the ball through Forster’s legs. Kelvin Wilson would have been there to clear. Or Wanyama or Mulgrew. Celtic brought the concept of riding your luck to an art form in their qualification for the last sixteen, but the art wasn’t there last night. They brought the concept of living off scraps to a new dimension, too, but that was another part of their progression that didn’t survive beyond the group stage.

In the group, Celtic had a near-miraculous conversion rate from chances created to goals scored. It was freakish. Damascene in its wonder. It just seemed like every second time Celtic managed to hit the target in their earlier games, they scored. This ruthlessness had to continue against Juve if they were to stand a chance of making it through, but it didn’t. They were as profligate where once they were clinical, the maddening one being the pin-point cross from Mulgrew in the 67th minute that landed flush on Ambrose’s nut within spitting distance of Buffon’s goal. Ambrose was as alone as any opponent could ever hope to be in the Juventus penalty area, but he couldn’t execute. His header was thumped down and up and dropped harmlessly into Buffon’s hands. A terrible, terrible waste.

And the last sign of life from his team. From then on, Juventus took a firm grip and never let it go. They had the threat more or less squeezed out of Celtic before they turned a fine away victory into a rout, Marchisio and Vucinic showing how tough it is at the top, two clinical goals that ended a dream that proved as impossible as everybody thought it might.