As the UEFA Champions League awakes from its mid-winter slumber, the knockout stages begin with a tasty looking tie in the east end of Glasgow. Neil Lennon’s Celtic welcome Italian giants Juventus in a match-up that, although isn’t the most high profile of the round of 16, is certainly one of the most intriguing.
The Scottish champions, currently galloping away with their domestic title race, have successfully found the balance needed to maintain their supremacy in Scotland while simultaneously being able to muster a worthwhile challenge on the continental scene.
Having been drawn in what looked like a very tough group, they scaled the unlikely heights to defeat Barcelona and edge out the more favoured Benfica and Spartak Moscow in the fight to reach the latter stages.
Juventus, who were also handed a stiff assignment in the group draw, progressed with Shakhtar Donetsk at the expense of reigning champions, Chelsea. The Turin based club find themselves topping Serie A with only Napoli as their realistic challengers as they seek to win back-to-back Scudettos and their 29th in total.
Juve coach, Antonio Conte, takes his side to Celtic Park with an excellent away record to back them up, which could see them in good stead as the Bhoys pose a significant threat to their chances of advancing to the quarter-finals. Celtic’s home record is impressive this year as the mighty Barcelona can testify to, when a combination of lethal finishing and heroic defending inspired the home side to one of their greatest ever European achievements.
Lennon knows his chances hang on the result from this first leg. If Celtic can take a lead to the Juventus Stadium he will feel they have a shot at upsetting the odds. But anything other than a win on Tuesday is likely to provide the Hoops with an insurmountable task in the second meeting.
Celtic will undoubtedly rely on their famous 12th man – the crowd – to give them an edge. With 60,000 passionate and fervoured Celts packed into Parkhead, the Italians will certainly know they’ve been in a game whether they win, lose or draw.
Both managers have injury concerns going into this game. Celtic must wait on the fitness of Georgios Samaras and Emilio Izaguirre while Juventus could be missing Giorgio Chiellini, Simone Pepe and Nicklas Bendtner.
For the neutral, this could be one of the ties of the round. If the Scots can reach the level they achieved in beating Barcelona before Christmas, this match could easily ignite the atmosphere inside the highly charged arena. Celtic will rely on this passion to drive them on, while the stoic Italian defensive mentality will do its utmost to repel all raiders in green and white.
Over the two legs, I expect Juventus to have too much class for Celtic. But the first leg could turn out to be a blood-and-thunder classic with honours even at the final whistle.
Prediction: Celtic 1-1 Juventus