Neil Lennon got his tactics right but the Celtic manager was let down by his players and undone by Juventus' class
On the day that wrestling was told by the International Olympic Committee that the sport would be cut from the 2020 Games, aficionados of high-quality grappling were treated to the sight of one burly and powerful Englishman (Gary Hooper) battling it out with one terrier-like Swiss (Stephan Lichtsteiner) at every corner. It was an embarrassment for the sport of football. The referee, Alberto Undiano Mallenco, did the right thing and cautioned both in the first half but should have awarded Celtic at least one penalty because what Lichtsteiner was doing was not defending, it was obstructing. Why on earth Juve's coach, Antonio Conte, did not set another player to protect Gianluigi Buffon was baffling because Lichtsteiner should have been sent off. In the second half Simone Padoin and Scott Brown were booked for similar offences but yellow cards were of no use to Celtic. They needed – and should have had – a penalty or two.
Neil Lennon must have told his players the importance of keeping their focus for the entire 90 minutes (plus added time) against the Italian champions and for Efe Ambrose to lose Alessandro Matri in the third minute must have been devastating for the Celtic manager. Lennon had disgust etched on his face as he turned away after seeing Matri score Juventus' opening goal. Perhaps, in hindsight, the defender should not have started after playing in the Africa Cup of Nations final for Nigeria on Sunday and then flying back to Glasgow. Either way, Ambrose should not have let in Matri. True, the Italian put him off with a little nudge but it was a nudge and not a push and Ambrose should have been stronger. To make matters worse Ambrose was also at fault for the third goal.
Juventus are top of Serie A and recently went 49 league matches unbeaten but on Tuesday night they were outplayed by Celtic for much of the match. Juve's midfield, one of the best in Europe with Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal accompanied by two wide men, were overrun by the tenacity of Scott Brown and the deployment of Charlie Mulgrew in a defensive midfield position worked well too. Sadly, though, Lennon missed the aerial threat of Georgios Samaras up front. Celtic's full-backs, Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre, provided a string of searching crosses, but Hooper could not win a battle with three hard‑nosed Serie A defenders on his own.
The Italians did not have many chances but they made Celtic pay on each occasion. For the first goal, Federico Peluso's long ball for Matri was perfect and for the second Matri set up Marchisio with a clever flick. Marchisio did not have one of his best evenings but even so he killed off the game – and the tie – with a clever pass to release Mirko Vucinic for the third. Brown had clearly been told to get in Pirlo's face and for a few minutes in the first half the Celtic captain had his opponent rattled. But then, moments later, Pirlo decided that enough was enough and left Brown in a heap behind him after winning the ball and then sending off a wondrous 40-yard pass in the direction of Vucinic. Again, class had beaten determination. That was the theme of the evening as Ambrose showed when he missed Celtic's best chance 17 minutes into the second half by heading straight atBuffon.
For a team who have won one away game out of 23 in the Champions League, Celtic needed to get a more positive result at home. The crowd at Celtic Park were fantastic despite their team conceding a third-minute goal and it made the Celtic players believe they could ruffle Juve. And in the second leg Juventus will have arguably their best defender, Giorgio Chiellini, back after suspension.