Celtic shaken to their roots by a ruthless Old Lady of Turin
Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic (centre) celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's third goal as despondent Celtic players look on at Celtic Park last night.
The east end of Glasgow shook to its roots, this most emotive of arenas shuddering in the ear-splitting din though, by the end, the roar hollered into the night sky was one of defiance rather than delirium. Celtic are 3-0 adrift in this tie, the optimism punctured by Juventus with a daunting trip to Turin to follow in three weeks’ time.
Their enthusiasm will not be dimmed by a hefty deficit, even if brutal logic suggests this staggering European run is all but over. Neil Lennon’s team deserved so much more from this first leg than a comprehensive loss and the grim prospect of being picked off once again by canny opponents in the return.
They had relished this occasion, their mood charged by the manager’s pre-match reminder “we might never get here again”, and had been bold, aggressive and crisply impressive in their approach. Less streetwise opponents would have cowed as the audience thundered its appreciation, but each missed opportunity – from Gary Hooper’s overhead, Victor Wanyama’s regular battered efforts, to Efe Ambrose’s tame header – had wounded the hosts. The profligacy was compounded by fragility across their own back-line.
And so this excellent Champions League campaign feels done, with the disappointment almost choking. Yet, while it may be hard to enjoy what ensues at the Juventus stadium, this European campaign must still be treated as a triumph. On a more detached level it has served a financial purpose.
Their progress even into the group stage, and now beyond, had virtually wiped out their bank debt. Their turnover rose by 71 per cent to just over €58m in that period and, while such reliance upon involvement might appear unhealthy, the hope is it serves to kick-start prosperity. Lennon had acknowledged in the build-up that qualification had been “pivotal for getting the ball rolling financially”. And yet this has been about so much more than merely the numbers.
Celtic have carried Scotland’s reputation on this stage this season, flag-bearers while the national side wheeze at the foot of their World Cup qualification section and the domestic game splutters in relative mediocrity. With Rangers condemned to the fourth tier, there is little to whet the appetite locally, no Old Firm collisions to drive the adrenaline and spur on the campaign. Lennon’s team are 18 points clear in the Scottish Premier League but have achieved that at a stroll.
There was an eagerness to both team and following here, a craving to tear into Juve. The referee’s first whistle had felt like a release. How Lennon, in his first game in charge at this stage of the Champions League, must have yearned for a period of sustained pressure to thrust the Italians into their shells in the hope they would eventually succumb as other illustrious names – Manchester United, Barca, Real Madrid, Benfica, Milan – had in the boom of this arena.
Instead, after the whirlwind of the opening 172 seconds, there was a concession to darken the mood. Maybe Ambrose was weary after his exertions with Nigeria at the African Cup of nations. More likely he merely misjudged the bounce of Federico Peluso’s pass, with Alessandro Matri benefiting. The racket went up again almost immediately to drown out the celebrations from the massed ranks of Bianconeri in one corner of the stadium, though this time it was hollered as a reminder to the home players that they were not alone.
Their favourites still poured forward upon Gianluigi Buffon’s goal, desperate to glean advantage from the absence of Giorgio Chiellini in the visitors’ back-line, but the veteran goalkeeper would not yield. In truth, even in the face of the onslaught from the stands, Juve were never likely to wilt. They had arrived without an away defeat in Europe in three years and guarded against the Scottish club’s considerable threat on their own patch.
Even if Antonio Conte’s side are a reemerging force at this level, they have the class and experience to thrive in such atmosphere. Their late goals merely reminded the watching world of their quality. Andrea Pirlo had actually misplaced a pass early on, and might have been unsettled by a spat off the ball with Scott Brown midway through the opening period. Yet, within seconds, he was slicing Celtic apart with a pass of such delicious beauty for Mirko Vucinic to collect.
That did not prompt a second, but the excellent Claudio Marchisio supplied one with 13 minutes remaining before Vucinic struck. The Italians’ menace on the break was unnerving, and will be replicated in the return. Juve are restored as contenders. For Celtic, only pride at what has been achieved remains.