Juventus this week return home for the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, with the luxury of having one eye towards the quarter finals. Having won handily over a fortnight ago in Glasgow, three away goals should serve as sufficient cushion to ensure a spot in the final eight, at a time when the Serie A season is neither ‘heating up’ nor a foregone conclusion. Tactics will most certainly be key (if not boring) as Antonio Conte will surely look to hammer the nail into the Bhoys’ coffin while Neil Lennon’s side will be hoping for a miracle.
During the first leg, Juventus seemed in a precarious position for the entire opening 60 minutes or so. Despite having taken the lead early via Alessandro Matri from a fortuitously mistimed long ball, things were not easy to watch for most tifosi, certainly not for cynical me. As time went on however, it appeared that this was intentional rather than a the result of Juve team playing far away from home up north in hostile territory. Indeed it appears that Conte got it spot on the first time, opting to have his typically possession-happy team absorb pressure away from home, allowing Celtic to tire themselves out. While my cardiologist is yet to forgive il mister, the end result was a nearly insurmountable aggregate lead for the trip home.
If Celtic are on the fringes in the Champions League, someone forgot to tell them that in the Scottish Premier League. Since the SPL resumed after the winter break, Celtic have been on an absolute tear, particularly at home – underscoring just how impressive and important the first leg victory was for Juve. Their last game at Celtic Park was a 5-0 thrashing of Dundee, Celtic are a full 16 points clear of first place in the league table and have recently qualified for the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. With Rangers cast to the lower divisions, Scotland remains Celtic’s stomping ground and a fine consolation.
To make matters even more dire for the Hoops, they will have to do without captain Scott Brown. With Juventus’ biggest asset its midfield, the Bhoys’ center pitch will have to match up without the Scottish number 8. Aside from being short-staffed for options on the pitch, someone else will thus have to wear the armband and reserve the right to complain to the referee when those Italians roughhouse back on set-pieces.
A tough January slowly has melted into a relatively calmer February, and Juventus will hope that recent history repeats itself with the spring thaw bringing easier fortunes. Juventus limped into Glasgow earlier in February coming off a few domestic struggles but were able to quickly turn their fortunes around before Valentine’s Day. Indeed the form displayed at Celtic Park would be the turning point, notwithstanding a tough loss in Rome the following Saturday in what would be the team’s third game in seven days. Combined with some Napoli missteps, and a 1-1 draw last week keeps Juventus a comfortable six points at the top of the table, with a head-to-head advantage over the second place Neapolitans. It is perhaps appropriate and to the team’s good fortunes that they enter this midweek fixture with a fairly sizable advantage.
All things considered, it would thus not be shocking to see a few alterations to the squad selection. Antonio Conte will have some decisions to make in what will be his first Champions League match on the actual bench at Juventus Stadium. Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Celtic supporter favorite Stephan Lichtsteiner are all sitting on yellow cards, so Conte could opt to sit any of the above to ensure their availability against whomever Juventus could draw in the quarter finals. Considering that the calibre of teams remaining that aren’t AC Milan (who will be seeded in the other side of the brackets for the next draw), that may be a prudent strategy, lest they risk becoming over confident and risking a complete meltdown this week.
Juve were meanwhile hoping to count on Giorgio Chiellini returning from injury, who would have certainly relished his return back to Champions League action after a few months out from a lengthy injury layoff. As of Monday, reports were that he was not practicing due to yet another ankle knock. Meanwhile his understudy, Martin Caceres, is doubtful with a knock of his own. Other than he and Simone Pepe, Conte will probably have his choice of squad at his disposal.
Juventus have done themselves a huge favor with their decisive performance in Scotland. Celtic Park is a tough place to play while Celtic themselves are no walkover of a team. They’ve proved it this UCL defeating Barcelona at home. With that, Juventus shouldn’t rest too easily on their laurels. Their opponents are dangerous and certainly capable of scoring three quick goals on a counter-attack if allowed to do so.
The key to this match will be tactics, ball possession, and pace. Juventus will likely choose to reverse tactics from last time, and attempt to control possession and thus the game from the outset. They’ve now gone four straight games and 400+ minutes without conceding a goal, and will need only to play ball for 90 minutes rather than the win. Certainly, the play will likely show it. The key will thus be the midfield, as it normally is when Juventus plays. While knockout games such as this place an imperative on putting the game away early during the home leg, the hard truth for Celtic is that they’re already “put away” early. If Juventus can play their game, they’ll look in like Flynt for the quarter finals.
In the event that the widely-predicted scenario does occur and Juventus advance, it may be best to make a few things clear from now. If an Italian team wins generally against a British one, it’s because they cheated. If said Italian team plays in a physical nature, they disregard the rules. Note the difference between this situation and that of a British (especially English) team employing a bit of rough-housing, which will inevitably be described with terms such as “gutsy,” or “gritty” by fine publications such as the Sun the next day. If the opposite were to occur without consequence, the referee was clearly biased and/or taking the piss. Regardless of outcomes, the British remain the best in the world at football.
But alas, I am getting ahead of myself. Regardless of whatever hard feelings linger from the first leg, this Celtic team is still that of quality, perhaps underrated. I had a dream a couple of nights ago that I turned the match on during the first half and Celtic were two goals in the bag already. While no bookmakers are setting the odds for my nightmare scenario, I cannot be any more than cautiously optimistic at this stage. Nor can I express anything but a healthy respect for the bhoys in hoops on the pitch, and will hold off from planning my quarter final previews just yet.