With the UEFA Champions League awakening from its mid-season slumber, Neil Lennon’s Celtic prepare to welcome Italian giants Juventus to the east end of Glasgow this evening. Opening up an exciting batch of knockout ties in this season’s competition, the revival of a Scottish-Italian rivalry is something Lennon and his Glaswegian warriors will hope to mark with triumph ecstasy and a deafening roar of green and white that is sure to send shockwaves throughout the continent. No strangers to the ‘Italian Job’, Celtic will hope to rekindle the fiery passion that brought Jock Stein’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ a sensational victory against Internazionale in May 1967. As with that fateful night at the Estádio Nacional, the odds are firmly stacked against Lennon’s men as, despite the battle due to commence in their own atmospheric cauldron, Juventus come to Glasgow on a mission of their own; the continuation of their rebirth in European football.
Undefeated champions of Serie A in 2012, Juventus authoritatively confirmed the re-establishment of their pre-eminence in the game by conquering their domestic sphere without a single loss in thirty-eight games. Antonio Conte, the man who has meticulously overseen Juventus’ resurrection, remarked that “this is a dream for us, to be in the knockout stages.” The dream he is referring to is the result of what was one of the most significant, widely covered and highly documented footballing scandals of the twentieth century; the Calciopoli scandal. Juventus were at the centre of an enormous match-fixing scandal that ravaged the integrity of the game in Italy and exacted profound implications for the ‘Old Lady.’ Having battled through the degradation of the footballing wilderness, Conte has retrieved the Italian side from the brink of abyss and thrust them back into where the club’s historical accomplishments and traditions dictate they should be; the spotlight. The Bianconeri, two times winners and seven-time finalists of this elite competition, have re-built efficiently in the post-scandal years and Conte’s men are more than capable of consolidating their bid for the Champions League trophy starting with the extinguishing of Celtic’s own European aspirations.
The way in which Juventus have conducted their business on the pitch has drawn votes of admiration from many observers of the game, including Marcello Lippi, who famously steered a wonderfully talented group of individuals to European glory in 1996, defeating ajax in Rome. “Conte has brought back the ‘Juventus style’, something which is not really understood outside Juve” claimed the World-Cup winning manager who now plies his trade as Head Coach of Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Superliga. It is testament to the tradition and heart which remains the crucial driving force in the philosophy of how Juventus should play. Tight and strong defensively, keeping a consistent shape with a back-three made up of a trio of authoritative brutes in Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, giving the wing-backs of Stephan Lichsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah the freedom to express their attacking talents in devastating fashion. As has been noted several times already this campaign, the integral cog of this particular Italian machine is undoubtedly the central midfield three. Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal establish a unique duo of combative and creative qualities, but the creation of chances is primarily left to the artistic masterstrokes of Andrea Pirlo. Widely regarded as one of the smartest and successful signings in recent Serie A history, Pirlo has seamlessly blended into Conte’s system with his creative virtuosity and the consummate exerciser of defence-dwindling passes has assumed an indispensable role in the Juventus midfield. Stopping Pirlo is imperative to Celtic’s cause, and naturally a dominant theme in the mind of Neil Lennon as he mulls over his tactics for tonight. Easier said than done of course, but it can be achieved. Elimination of supply could potentially be elimination of Juventus.
Lennon’s press conference ahead of tonight’s tie was an interesting one. He spoke with a usual calmness which hopefully the player’s will take as a symbol of his confidence. He has urged his players to “seize the moment” as they “might never get here again.” It’s true, Celtic haven’t always had the most impressive track-record when it has come to rubbing shoulders with the superior entities of the European game but this season seems to have a certain writing on the wall. Additionally, Lennon has warned the Serie A side that it would be dangerous to underestimate Celtic. Believing that they will be brushed aside effortlessly without a fight is a thought process that Juventus can undertake at their own peril. One prophesies that this will not be the mode of thinking of Conte, Pirlo and co. as they would have surely shared the astonishment of the footballing world at Celtic’s heroic efforts to contain, frustrate and best Barcelona. An historic 2-1 victory at Parkhead against arguably the most outstanding footballing side in recent memory, or of all time, will live long in Celtic folklore and it is this type of victory, this momentous night, along with the 1967 triumph in Lisbon, that can act as definitive motivation for tonight. Juventus will not underestimate Celtic, they will treat them as equals in what is sure to be a fiercely contested battle.
If Celtic are to march bow down to the Parkhead faithful tonight in a gesture of victory, they will have to have applied a similar strategy to how they toppled Barcelona. Relinquishing possession to Juventus is a given, and wholly understandable, as trying to out-pass and outplay such a team will only conclude in catastrophe. Lennon knows this and knows it well. Celtic will press hard on the ball, working tirelessly to ensure that Vidal, Pirlo and Marchisio enjoy a most uncomfortable baptism into the Glasgow cauldron. Minimal time on the ball is the gateway to Juventus mistakes and sloppiness, which could unleash Celtic’s only weapon of attack; the counter-attack. In addition to this, taking advantage of set-pieces is a must. The bombardment of a left-footed Mulgrew free-kick or corner, whipped deliciously into the penalty area in tandem with the attacking prowess and aerial threat of Georgios Samaras, Scott Brown and Victor Wanyama are highly important in any attempt to dismantle the Italian defence. A Samaras header nestling into the back of the net would transform Parkhead into a frenzy of elation.
As always, that potentially frenzied crowd of Celtic patrons play much more than embody the role of observer during such an event. The fans at Parkhead have been a sight and sound to behold this season, providing some memorable moments from the victories against Spartak and Barcelona. Again, they are to provide a valuable asset to Lennon’s men tonight. Capable of unnerving the most distinguished of foreign opponents, this Scottish footballing theatre will erupt before kick-off as the anticipation and excitement reaches boiling point. Celtic are a team who are inferior to the likes of Barcelona, Juventus or PSG, but they have been expert exponents of crowd-feeding energy this season. It is their drug. They have used it to their advantage brilliantly and will hope to deploy a similar sentimental tactic this evening, there is an enduring sense that the players and fans are on this European expedition together. Juventus are surely wary of what a vibrant and electrifying spectre they are to witness tonight as they bore witness to the roar of 60,000 Celtic fans as their team overcame Juventus in an enthralling 4-3 victory in 2001.
“The fans undoubtedly give the players a lift and have done at Celtic Park historically. Even if there are long spells where Celtic aren’t in possession, the fans keep on backing the team. They are more patient than in domestic games, where there is almost an expectancy that Celtic should be two or three goals ahead. That is important, I think; the fans understand the context of these matches.” Alan Thomspon, part of Lennon’s coaching staff, remarked. There is the sense that these are genuine footballing fanatics who are realistic, not idealistic. They drive their team towards victory under an appreciation of the diverse nature and dynamics of the footballing game. Fans packed into Parkhead tonight will not expect their team to race into a 3-0 goal lead which may be realistic in the Scottish Premier League, where Celtic sit pretty at the summit to the tune of eighteen points.
An army of dedicated and vocal supporters at the ready, a team who know they can beat the best and a manager who understands just what it means to be here form a recipe for what could be a night to eclipse even the Barcelona victory in terms of accomplishment. Set against the backdrop of potential European immortalisation, however, Juventus stand as a stern and frighteningly talented opponent who hope to continue their own mission, their own quest for dominance. A beautifully poised tie has been in the making for three months now, the time for waiting is over. A blood-and-thunder classic between Scotland and Italy can be fully expected.