PULLING the curtains back in Glasgow this morning, I was greeted with snow flurries and a thin white blanket across the city.
After a minor panic that I might not make it to the airport or that my flight to London might be cancelled, I was put at ease upon discovering that unlike the capital, life in these northernly climes doesn’t grind to a halt at the first flake of snow. Unfortunately, Celtic’s European adventure appears to have frozen at a standstill after last night’s 3-0 defeat to Juventus.
In the jubilation that followed Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona in November, some critics tried to belittle the result by claiming that on the pitch, the Hoops were second best in every department – bar goals scored of course. That’s the only stat that counts however and it didn’t matter that Barca boasted 84 per cent possession and 25 attempts to Celtic’s five.
It’s unlikely that those who derided Celtic for what they called a ‘freak’ result against Barca will now praise the Hoops for being the better side on the night against Juve – better in every respect except that pesky but vital ‘goals scored’ stat. For despite Celtic’s dominance, they paid for their profligacy against an experienced Italian outfit who executed their excellent counterattacking game to devastating effect.
Unfortunately, you see, stats don’t win football matches – goals do.
The cautious anticipation that preceded the game bloomed into belief around Celtic Park after an energetic start from the Hoops that initially had Juve on the back foot. However that hope was almost immediately extinguished with a calamitous goal gifted to the visitors. Before kick-off, the Green Brigade had unfurled a banner aping The Clash’s London Calling album cover. However had Joe Strummer started singing the title track at the first whistle, he’d have barely got to the “zombies of death” line before Alessandro Matri’s opener as the volume was turned down to zero among the Hoops fans. Still, some nice football from Celtic and a Clash reference – by this stage Pat Nevin at least would have been in his element.
Despite the blow, Celtic continued to dictate the tempo, but the amateurish defending for Juve’s opener received an unfortunate complement at the other end as Celtic spurned repeated chances – 17 of them to be exact, with seven on target. Such a combination does not augur well when trying to overcome the Serie A leaders.
The Hoops’ cause of course was not helped by the poor performance of referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. Grasping, grappling, pulling and pushing (with Gary Hooper the chief target) at every corner and free kick into the Juve area repeatedly went unpunished. The official did eventually book Stephan Lichtsteiner midway through the first half, but also cautioned Hooper for the same incident. Yet despite the continued targeting of the Englishman, the disinterested official failed to show the Swiss player a second card, begging the question that if by default he thought Hooper was play-acting and diving, when didn’t he show a second yellow to the Celtic forward? Maybe even the official lacked the courage of his conviction, but from that stage on the game drifted away from the Spanaird.
The howls of disbelief (and occasional sarcastic applause) from the home fans that greeted his decisions only seemed to galvanise his conviction that his decisions were correct and that Celtic were the sinners, not sinned against.
Clean tackles in which Celtic won the ball were blown up for, while an illegal tackle from behind from Juve was noted but not punished with the required booking; several times the official failed to play a clear advantage for Celtic on the occasions he did give them a decision, thus allowing Juve to regroup; the Hoops were prevented from taking quick freekicks when on one occasion Juve took a freekick before the ball had even stopped moving; while some cynical time-wasting from the visitors went unheeded bar a point of the finger to his watch as yet another Juve player lay sprawled, then aghast, on the turf.
Despite those threats, Mallenco only added the minimum three minutes required for the six second-half substitutions, though by that stage, even an extra hour would likely have made little difference. Neil Lennon will surely be scrutinised by UEFA for his claim that the referee “was very pro-Juventus”. One can only hope that the governing body casts an equally critical eye over the source of Lennon’s ire, namely the poor, inconsistent performance of their official in the last-16 of UEFA’s showpiece club competition.
Yes, I’m a hurting Celtic fan today and could nitpick over the referee all day, just as Juve fans could cite some questionable offside calls that might have led to them extending their advantage earlier than they did. But frustrating as the referee was, however, it wasn’t him who stopped Celtic from capitalising on the chances they created. That responsibility lay with Celtic and in particular Victor Wanyama, Kris Commons and, ironically, the out-of-sorts Efe Ambrose, whose exertions in helping Nigeria clinch the African Cup of Nations two days earlier looked to have taken their toll with the defender at fault for two of Juve’s goals. An unwise move then from Lennon perhaps to field a player who had only returned to Scotland that morning.
However, the chances that fell to the aforementioned players, and the glut of opportunities created by the home side, were not exactly gilt-edged, aside arguably from Ambrose’s. Celtic were clearly missing the cutting edge that would have been provided by the injured Georgios Samaras, who had scored against all five teams Celtic had previously met in Europe this season.
Without that cutting edge, Celtic looked unlikely to beat Gianluigi Buffon. James Forrest, not long returned from injury, performed admirably playing up front but at times there seemed an over-reliance on launching balls into the youngster, and expecting him to hold up play or produce the bit of magic it seemed was needed to unlock the Juve defence. While they had valid penalty claims, the Hoops were always at risk from the Italians’ incisive counter-attacking game, which they effected lethally against a visibly tiring home side in the last 15 minutes.
A converted penalty may have buoyed Celtic on the night but even heading to Turin trailing 3-1 instead of 3-0 and requiring three goals would still be a daunting prospect. The tie isn’t technically over, but the sombre atmosphere walking down a misty Gallowgate afterwards among the eerily silent tens of thousands of fans, indicated that even the most optimistic of Celtic supporters would concede the Hoops’ European campaign won’t progress beyond the last-16. As Lennon admitted, his side need a miracle.
Yet having progressed this far, through two qualifying rounds and beating Spartak (twice) and favourites Barcelona along the way, Celtic can be proud of their European achievements. They have gone one further than reigning European champions Chelsea and Manchester City, champions of the widely-proclaimed best league in the world, and provided Scotland’s best showing in the competition for six years, when Celtic reached the same stage in the 2007/08 season. Not bad for a side written off by national media outlets as soon as they group was drawn, assembled on a proverbial shoestring compared to their continental opponents and hailing from a so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ league, whose own chief executive predicted ‘Armageddon’ a year ago. Not bad at all…