Celtic found out last night that the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League is amongst the most ruthless environment in world football.
The home side gave their fanatical support something to shout about as they hustled, harried and agitated an extremely talented Juventus side. Unfortunately, the cream rose to the top and it was the Old Lady who triumphed, running out 3-0 winners.
The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Scottish champions, with the visitors grabbing an early goal – Alessandro Matri with the finish in the 3rd minute courtesy of some suspect defending. The gamble to play centre-half Efe Ambrose backfired enormously as the defender had a night to forget.
The Nigerian international was experiencing a career high on Sunday – lifting the Africa Cup of Nations with his country, but was swiftly brought back to earth in this tie. With only two days between the final of the AFCON and the Champions League tie, with a long-haul flight to boot, Ambrose showed signs of fatigue as Juve took full advantage.
The defending was not all that was suspect on a night where the referee had a lot to answer for.
Italians have been long-known to bend and manipulate every rule in the book in order to seek victory, and Juventus’ performance did nothing to dispel the stereotype.
Gary Hooper received some tough treatment, especially from corners, in what border lined actual bodily harm. He was constantly manhandled and obstructed in the Juventus box, with the referee seemingly unwilling to take control of the situation.
Hooper wasn’t the only Celtic player to be subjected to physical policing in the opponents 18-yard area. At every set-piece in the Old Lady’s half, shirt pulling and tugging was enforced in attempt to win at all costs.
Although the referee will have had better nights, his dismal performance cannot be blamed entirely for Celtic’s shortcomings.
Their poor defending and inability to take their chances was costly, in a game where they knew chances would be few and far between.
The performance given by Celtic was commendable and they made Juve look a worse side than what they are, but in the end, class overcame hard work.
Juventus effectively put the tie to bed, finishing off the home side with two ruthless counter attacks. Claudio Marchisio made it 2-0 with a clever finish in the 77th minute before Mirko Vucinic rounded off the victory late on, leaving Celtic stunned.
Neil Lennon’s men can take a huge deal of heart from this performance, and others in this season’s competition, but Juventus proved that cream rises and that the Champions League is the most unforgiving competition in world football.
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