This post was guest-blogged by Vittorio Pazzini. Follow him on Twitter (@vittoriopazzini)
Amici: Tonight is the night!
Glasgow will be the setting for the latest and biggest momento della verita for our Bianconeri boys this season.
Tonight, in the first leg of the first knockout round of the prestigious Champions League, we will finally see how far the Italian champions can go in translating their domestic success into European glory.
As you’ve no doubt learned from our Champions League match preview, Celtic, while admittedly one of the weaker clubs left in the competition, are not to be taken lightly. After all, this is the very same club who only months ago defeated Barcelona with only 27% of possession, reducing a certain mega-famous, multi-platinum-selling recording artist to copious, shamrock-shaped tears.
And hopefully, Rod Stewart will weep once more… but for different reasons.
Following a crucial, fortifying 2-0 victory over those malcontents Fiorentina, Juve are, as we speak, in Scotland, preparing for the business of adding some precious away goals to the aggregate score, clearing the way for the second leg in Turin.
In today’s STTBS, we will wax optimistic, know our enemies, and perhaps take a lesson from the younger generation in running up a score.
Conte’s Boundless Dreams
Beyond the hardheaded exterior, thrillingly terrifying motivational speeches and relentless drive to win, Juventus coach and talisman Antonio Conte is simply a man. And a guy can dream, can’t he?
It’s a dream to be back in the Champions League and our dream is now to claim a place in the quarter-finals. We don’t have any particular objectives, but we’re not placing limits on how far we can go.
Antonio may be living a dream with limitless possibilities, but he refuses to approach Celtic with his head in the clouds:
We’ve got great respect for Celtic and won’t underestimate them. They’re back in the Champions League and, like us, are outsiders who want to go as far as possible. They’re a physical team and score a high percentage of their goals from set pieces.
Our leader is keenly aware of the potentially unnerving effects of playing at Celtic Park (see below), and will look to keep the home crowd quiet(ish):
We kept a close eye on Celtic’s Champions League progress during the group stages. Home advantage has been very important for them. The stadium will act as their twelfth man, but they are still an excellent side. Not many teams could manage to beat Barcelona at home and lose by a whisker at the Nou Camp.
At this point, those of you who (like me) know next to nothing about Celtic may be wondering exactly where on the pitch we can direct our anxiety. As you’d expect, Conte has done his homework:
Brown is the heart and soul of their side, alongside Wanyama. Hooper’s power and pace make him a player who would also do well in Italy. Samaras is physically strong and dangerous in one-on-one situations. Wilson’s good at the back and I’m also a big fan of their goalkeeper Forster. He has a great future ahead of him.
Translation: be wary of everyone, and fear no one.
However, there is potentially bad news for our vulnerable left side: Although he is back with the squad, the sorely missed Kwadwo Asamoah will likely not feature tonight, as he recuperates from an arduous campaign with Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations and resets his default tactical setting to “CONTE”:
Kwadwo returned yesterday and it would be asking too much of him to play after being away for a month and a half. He’ll train and will be ready for Saturday’s game against Roma.
That means Federico “Qualitative Man of Mystery” Peluso will take the left wing. But overall, Conte will likely choose only a slight variation of the classic Juve lineup. Caceres will deputize for Chiellini, while in attack, Conte has decided to ride the hot hands (or shoeless feet) of Vucinic and Matri.
Meanwhile, Antonio’s coaching counterpart, Celtic’s Neil Lennon, has saluted Conte and his side, even as he plots against them. While Conte appreciates the compliments, he still has the hunger of a young coach eager to make his mark on the world’s best club tournament:
I’d like to thank him (Lennon) for his kind words. It will be an honour for me to meet him and shake his hand. As far as my development as a coach is concerned, it goes hand in hand with the team’s performance. I hope it can continue, because that means we’ve managed to obtain important results.
Diplomatic but defiant: After the less-than-flattering events of recent weeks, it’s good to see Conte and co. once again embodying Lo Stile Juve.
Gianluigi Buffon has seen and done a lot in his legendary career, including playing in Glasgow, and he is decidedly skeptical towards Celtic’s supposed home-field mystique (again, see below):
I’ve already played here with Parma and Juventus and experienced a red-hot atmosphere. We know what lies ahead. The crowd can certainly help and provide a boost to the players, but only up to a certain point. It’s players who score the goals, not spectators. It will be down to us to ensure the supporters don’t get too excited.
If anything, Gigi thinks the absence of Rangers, Celtic’s fierce historical rivals, from the top flight of Scottish football may even leave them vulnerable, maybe even a bit soft.
This is a very peculiar situation this year. It would change from player to player, not having the psychological impact of so many high-tension matches. We often have high-pressure matches and, if you don’t for two or three weeks, you can let your guard down and it is very difficult to get that level of tension back again. It happened when myself and the manager (Antonio Conte) played together in the Champions League in the early part of my career here.
Of course, here in Scotland both Celtic and Rangers have full stadiums and excellent atmospheres. We already know this and respect it very much.
Whether Buffon is simply being honest or indulging in a little pre-match gamesmanship when referring to this possible lack of tension in the Celtic ranks, the fact remains: it makes me nervous. The last thing we need is an affronted Celtic supported by 60,000 rabid fans. Still, Gigi usually knows what he’s doing, so I guess we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Here’s to weakening the opponent’s convictions!
As is usual with two-legged matches like this one, Buffon has fielded several questions on strategy: Do you look to score early and often, or concentrate on keeping a clean sheet?
If we don’t concede a goal, we’ll get at least a draw and that will be good to build on for the second leg. It’s not a case of us attacking and Celtic defending. Both teams will play to their strengths. Not conceding a goal wouldn’t put us through, but it would be a good start.
In this regard, Saturday’s shutout of Fiorentina should go some way towards building the kind of confidence our defense needs to consistently deny the best of Europe.
I, for one, am exponentially more confident when San Gigi’s between the posts.
Nedved Plans Counter-roar!
Certainly no stranger to ferocity, being a veteran of several Champions League campaigns, former Bianconeri hero and flaxen-haired warrior Pavel Nedved expects more than a little intensity from Celtic in tonight’s match:
We’ll be stepping into a lion’s den and I don’t think the team will need geeing up. We’ll have to tough it out, but we have shown that we’re ready.
I’m sure “geeing up” is comparable to “keying up” or “firing up,” but I still can’t picture Pavel using that specific word. Oh, the joys of liberal translation!
Not only is Nedved no stranger to CL action (and more than a little leonine himself), but you’ll agree that he is also no dummy. He’s not ignorant of the fact that Juve has not played to expectations in recent weeks.
In January we had a slight dip in form, but you can’t be at the top of your game over the course of a whole season. Now we’re in form and ready for Europe.
Reading over this last sentence, one gains a better perspective on the growing chasm between actual events and their more hysterical interpretation from fanatics like ourselves.
For many, I’d say most of us, January was frustrating at best, hell(ish) at worst. But in retrospect—especially considering Januarys of the still-recent past, last month feels exactly as Pavel suggests: a slight dip in form.
Whether or not he really believes it (to the extent that he’s fronting for the media) Pavel has hit upon a home truth that succeeds in measuring the extent to which Juventus have once again ascended to the loftier levels of expectations.
Think about it: this January, we allowed Napoli to creep up behind us in the league table, while narrowly missing out on the Coppa Italia final, which you’ll agree is of tertiary importance. That’s it.
We didn’t capsize from the swells of second-half Serie A mediocrity, Ranieri tinkering with the formation as we went down; we didn’t suit up for Zaccheroni as if facing a firing squad; and we didn’t naively get our hopes up with Ferrara, only to be let down, as Sampdoria experienced this year.
Whatever happens tonight, whatever we’re complaining about this week, our threat to Italy and Europe is legit—and growing.
Juve Under Spanish Supervision
As is tradition with Champions League matches, the Juve-Celtic clash will be overseen by a referee of neutral national origin, and thus free of partisan sympathies. In this case, it will be Alberto Undiano Mallenco of Spain.
We last saw Mallenco four years ago in the return leg of our disappointing last-16 fixture with Chelsea in 2009. Suffice to say, this year’s pistol-whipping of the (former) European champions has supplanted such bitter memories.
Mallenco’s linesmen will be Roberto Díaz Pérez del Palomar and Jesús Calvo Guadamuro. Finally, Raúl Cabanero Martínez will man the crucial fourth official/vibraphonist/French tickler position.
Let’s hope they are as long in wisdom and experience as they are in name.
The 12th Man
Juventus have had little luck in their two past journeys to Celtic Park: both matches went to the hosts by a one-goal margin.
The first meeting was a first-leg encounter in 1981. Giovanni Trapattoni went with the legend-laden starting XI of Zoff, Gentile, Cabrini, Furino, Brio, Scirea, Marocchino, Tardelli, Bettega, Brady and Bonini.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what went down, courtesy of Juventus.com:
At the time, British football had a particular reputation of danger from set plays, and indeed the only goal of the game came from a Celtic corner kick. Murdo MacLeod put his effort past the Juventus shot-stopper after 65 minutes to give the Scots an advantage to take to Italy. However, the Bianconeri were able to come back in the home leg two weeks later and progress to the next round via a 2-0 victory.
Twenty years later, a veritable goal-fest saw Celtic victorious in a group stage match, only to mathematically lose out on qualifying for the next round. Juve was already through, but by all accounts it was a hotly contested 90 minutes:
With 19 minutes on the clock, Del Piero opened the scoring when he squeezed a free kick to the right of goalkeeper Douglas and into the top corner from 20 metres out. Just moments later, the Scots drew level when Lambert’s cross was diverted in off the head of Valgaren. Then, just before the interval, Sutton leapt to meet another Lambert delivery from the left flank and hand the Scots a 2-1 lead at half-time.
The second-half continued where the first had left off. Only six minutes after the restart, Amoruso released the substitute Trezeguet, who found the back of the net with a rasping left-footed strike from inside the area to get Lippi’s men back on terms. Sutton was again in the thick of the action, this time earning a penalty after being held back in the box by Iuliano. Larsson stepped up to the plate and slotted it past Carini’s right glove to restore the lead. Soon after, Sutton let fly a stunning volley which left the Bianconeri keeper with no chance. The result seemed to be secure for the Hoops, however Trezeguet pounced on a loose ball in the area and unleashed a clinical right-footed finish to half the deficit. Juve couldn’t go on to grab an equalising goal, but a dramatic encounter ended in a 4-3 victory for the hosts.
Unfortunately for Celtic, their heroics proved to be in vain as Porto registered a 1-0 triumph over Rosenberg to secure qualification.
To summarize: the Bianconeri always win in the end. But with regards to tonight’s match, it would be nice to win at the beginning as well.
Celtic at Home
In the run-up to this Champions League fixture, much has been made by the media (in possible collusion with Celtic themselves) of the unique atmosphere at Celtic Park and its enormous effect on the home club’s performances.
And though it’s true that not all stadia intimidate visitors equally, it seems as if even a Celtic supporter would go so far as to call the environment “hostile” in the risk-your-life, we-just-installed-turnstyles-but-feel-free-to-set-fire-to-your-seat Serie A sense of the word. From the Guardian:
Celtic Park could never be described as a seething cauldron of hate. There has been no spectre of overt intimidation towards foreign opposition, be that by “Welcome to Hell” banners or otherwise. Yet there is clearly something about the atmosphere within Glasgow’s east end on European nights that unnerves even top-class visiting teams.
What Celtic have occasionally lacked in talent when competing against foreign opponents they have made up for in feeding off the energy of their supporters. A vibrant atmosphere is one thing; using it to your advantage is quite another.
As previously mentioned, the crowd will be 60,000 strong, only a handful of them Juventus supporters. Several big names have fallen at Celtic Park, beginning in the sixties, including Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Benfica and Milan. And according to the article, several of these upsets have occurred in spectacularly devastating fashion.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine Conte and co. cowering in fear at such tepid folklore:
Ominously for Juventus, Celtic have not lost at home to Serie A opponents since March 1969, when Milan departed with a 1-0 victory… the Italians cannot count even on the backdrop being punctured by a Celtic setback during the first 90 minutes of this last-16 tie.
I can’t quite hear the theme from The Exorcist playing. Remember, folks: Juve play at Napoli at least once a year.
Not Against Us, Neil!
Antonio Conte’s not the only relatively young manager in world football. Celtic’s Neil Lennon may not have many years under his belt, but it certainly says something that he’s been trusted with one of the world’s most successful clubs. It also says that he’s not backing down from Juventus, no matter how much he respects them:
We’re looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead from Juventus. They are well organised, very strong defensively and blessed with fantastic footballers. Matri’s caught my eye recently, Vidal, Marchisio and Pogba are all talented players, while Pirlo is still one of the finest midfielders in world football. We’re facing a great team with a great coach and it’s very exciting for me to challenge myself against Juventus and Antonio Conte.
Having said that, it would be dangerous to underestimate Celtic. Anything can happen over two games, nothing’s decided tomorrow night and we’ll play with full commitment over the 180 minutes.
If that’s not enough to keep a Juventino on guard, there’s the small matter of who’s been whispering tactical advice in his ear: none other than Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson.
I’ve spoken to Sir Alex. He took time out of his busy schedule to come and visit myself and my backroom staff. It’s fantastic for a young manager to be able to receive a few pointers here and there.
Depends on what those pointers are. Are we talking intensive, hardcore tactical maneuvers, or is Sir Alex just telling him to mark Pirlo?
Primavera Begin Viareggio with a Bang
Marco Baroni’s Primavera squad could show the senior squad a thing or four about running up a healthy goal tally.
Juve, Jr. took out Maribor 4-2, officially burying the match in the first 45 minutes.
You know what else happened in the first 45 minutes? Eric Lanini, a substitute entering the match at just under 20 minutes post-kickoff, scored a hat-trick in all of 25 minutes. Seriously.
That’s the kind of exploit they write folk songs or epic poems about, no? Here’s the rundown:
The Bianconeri were quick out of the blocks and in the driving seat right from the off. However, the pitch and the aggression of the Solvenian outfit did cause some problems. Vuklisevic received a booking for a challenge on Padovan, which forced the striker to make way for Lanini after 18 minutes. Baroni’s side went in front after Lanini guided a header home with his very first touch of the ball. The Primavera didn’t rest on their laurels and instead piled forward in an attempt to double their advantage.
It was really turning out to be Lanini’s day as he added to his tally just minutes later. A mix-up in the Slovenian box was punished by a stroke of genius from Lanini. However, the Slovenian side hit back through a corner kick which was turned in by Vuklisevic, who put his effort past Magnusson from close range.
Lanini’s dream afternoon got even better as he met Ceria’s cross from the left flank and headed past Branescu. Beltrame rounded up a convincing first-half by finishing off from Schiavone’s corner to give the Bianconeri a 4-1 lead at the break.
Wow. So who is this Eric Lanini, and is he available for the rest of the year? According to Baroni:
Lanini? He’s a guy with great quality. And like many others, I consider him a starter. He’s doing really well and I’m happy for his goals.
These days, it seems that at Vinovo, there’s an Immobile born every minute.
JuventiKnows at Large
Are you like me?
Feeling deprived of the much-loved, much-missed It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Old Lady Sings podcast?
You’re in luck this week, as JuventiKnows’ very own Aaron Giambattista recently featured on Serie A Live Radio. Aaron was on hand to discuss Juve’s recent form and prospects for the future. Click on the February 4th Episode.
Aaron provides his usual level-headed, cogent analysis (all the more impressive when you consider that he’s speaking from post-Super Bowl New Orleans, where the word “blackout” could apply both to the Superdome and a particularly rough night on the tiles).
But perhaps the most exciting topic discussed is the possibility of more IAOTTOLS podcasts. I’m going to make like a real football journalist and take Aaron’s “we’ll see” as proof positive.
They WILL be back.
That’s it for today. Stay tuned later this week for post-Celtic, pre-Roma news. Ciao for now!
[STTBS]: Juventus News is a daily feature where the JuventiKnows editorial team discusses the JuveNews stories you need to read, without the “Messi signs for Juve on loan thanks to Nike” kind of nonsense. What does [STTBS] mean? You’ll have to guess that for yourself. We wouldn’t tell you even under pain of torture… (though we do take bribes)