Juventus steal away Celtic hopes
Quietening the home crowd is a time-honoured tactic of the two-legged tie. It helps when your opponent hands you the chance to do so. Juventus may have been absent from the top table for some time, but they have not forgotten the methods of old.
The 'London Calling' sign emblazoned in the Lisbon Lions Stand spoke of a May invasion of England's capital but Wembley Way is infinitely more likely to be talking Italian than singing lustily of Glasgow's Irish heritage.
Celtic were mugged by a most wily Old Lady, coached by be-wigged Antonio Conte, a constant presence on the sidelines after the end of his match-fixing ban. His team blend the dark arts with an ability to mortally wound an exposed opponent. The trio of away goals they take home to Turin arrived by such a combination. Alessandro Matri, Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic picked at Scottish sores to kill off Hooped dreams of going further in the modern Champions League than ever before.
Taxmen, finance and legal proceedings may continue to dominate the football media north of the border yet a good news story in Celtic's European adventure had been a source of national pride. Juve pricked that pride with precision to send smirks on to the faces of those of a blue-shirted persuasion.
"It's the harsh reality of football at this level," reflected Celtic manager Neil Lennon. "When you make defensive mistakes you get punished."
"For 65 minutes, Celtic played with great intensity but we showed great maturity," said a pleased Conte. "We played very well. In the second half we were much better and won the match convincingly. We had to absorb a lot of pressure."
Becoming a lone superpower had allowed Celtic to concentrate on the competition that gave them their greatest glory 46 years ago. Nine players rested for the previous weekend's match with Inverness Caledonian Thistle were fresh and primed.
With Manchester United and Arsenal both facing difficult opponents in the Round of 16, there was even hope that the Bhoys in green could be the British club to go farthest. Some hope now. At least they beat Barcelona to get here. Juve clinically punctured a truly hackle-raising atmosphere. The roar from the Green Brigade had completely drowned out UEFA's official anthem in pre-match. Juventus' followers were hardly backwards in coming forward either. Here was proof that a modern football stadium can still be shaken to its foundations by a breathtaking wall of noise.
The celebratory air was poisoned painfully. Efe Ambrose dallied, leaving 'keeper Fraser Forster in no-man's land.
Alessandro Matri's shove caused Ambrose to falter and the striker bundled home. Kelvin Wilson's hack away was in vain. Nigeria's Ambrose, less than 48 hours after being crowned a continental king of Africa, began as if jetlagged. Neil Lennon's risk resulted in a groggily conceded away goal but he was more annoyed about a second-half chance that Ambrose headed only into Gianluigi Buffon's arms rather than that early mistake.
The wall of sound crumbled irreparably. Only a small corner of inebriated defiance remained in the mood to sing throughout.
In the first half Victor Wanyama showed why he is coveted by an elite list clubs willing to pay significant money. The Kenyan is box-to-box in a style recently out of vogue in the Premier League. The instinct is to roam, since his speed usually gets him back into defensive positions too. He uses his body to make angles, to keep the ball recycled for him to receive the next pass. Celtic's moves went through him repeatedly, he was always the leader of their charge, but once he faded, Celtic did too, and fatally so. Juventus' second-half goals were scored via noticeable gaps where the Kenyan might previously have been.
In the short minutes that the teams were level, it was apparent that the rope-a-dope technique employed to beat Barca would not be Neil Lennon's tactical plan. In any case, Celtic were required to attack right from Matri's third-minute goal onward. They sincerely lacked the weaponry to make their offensive effort effective.
Giorgios Samaras, who can seemingly lift himself for the big European nights while often woeful in the run-of-the-mill, was badly missed. A dodgy hamstring was rested for the return in Turin but his team needed him now and not then. Time and again, a quality crossed ball was pinged where the Greek's flowing mane might usually be found.
Not that Celtic are a long-ball team. Their forward line interchanged often, with all three of Gary Hooper, Kris Commons and James Forrest possessing tight control and speed of thought. Scott Brown the skipper was energetic and creative behind them. They just could not find a way through a Bianconeri defence that lacked Giorgio Chiellini but still exhibited Italian attributes of organisation and all-round dirtiness.
During that period of early Celtic pressure, Commons caused particular trouble, and especially from the dead ball too. Juventus chose nefarious means to counter it. Wrestling may no longer be an Olympic sport but grappling lives on in Torinese defending. A clinch between Stephan Lichsteiner and Hooper caused howls of outrage but no foul was given. Lennon raged on the sidelines. Instead, both were booked and a running battle was formed for the ninety minutes.
Juve's half-time reorganisation gave them second-half control as opposed to the previous anarchy. Celtic became ever more disjointed, their previous verve strangled by strong-arm tactics and tiring legs. Pirlo's metronome began to tick louder, and when Juventus were given the opportunity to strike they were deadly. As Celtic began to make a final push to overturn the single-goal deficit, their task was made first doubly hard and then nigh-on impossible. Marchisio cut in on Matri's ball to score past Forster. Ambrose's error allowed Marchisio to create Vucinic's clincher, the third goal passed into the net, and sending those in green to the exits.
"Celtic, Celtic," was the chant ringing out into the Glaswegian night but the voices were Italian and not Scottish. With the tie considered over, hands of magnanimous friendship were being offered. "We need a miracle," sighed Lennon.