Juventus all but booked their place in the Champions League quarterfinals with a 3-0 victory over Celtic in the first-leg of their last-16 tie at Celtic Park.
Alessandro Matri stunned the home crowd with an opening goal against the run of play inside five minutes, but Celtic recovered and spent much of the encounter on the front foot. Yet, all their endeavor counted for little as they were unable to breach the Serie A leaders’ defense and then succumbed to two surely decisive goals in the last 13 minutes from Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic.
Juventus were not at their best as they seek to reclaim their place among Europe’s elite, but were ruthlessly efficient against a Celtic side who were let down in both penalty areas.
Celtic defender Efe Ambrose will take much of the blame having been directly responsible for the first and third goal and also missing his side’s best chance of the night. But questions must surely be asked about manager Neil Lennon’s decision to play the Nigerian just 48 hours after he successfully contested the African Cup of Nations final in South Africa.
Celtic have already produced a mammoth performance in the competition this season in beating Barcelona, but to even make this tie a contest in the second leg would be an even greater feat.
It all began so brightly for Celtic, as, looking to thrive once more on their underdog status, they began in a manner befitting the intense support of the Celtic Park faithful.
Inside two minutes, Victor Wanyama struck a strong shot from 25 yards that Buffon could only spill wide of the post.
But just a minute later, Celtic suffered a massive blow to their hopes of reaching the last eight of the competition for the first time in its current format.
Federico Peluso lofted a hopeful ball forward from inside his own half that Ambrose completely misjudged, allowing the ball to run on for Matri to prod past the out-rushing Fraser Forster. Although the referee failed to initially award the goal as Kelvin Wilson stopped the ball beyond the goal line, Marchisio was on hand to prod the ball into the top corner to make sure.
Despite going behind so early, Celtic were not disrupted from their task and they continued to play with conviction. Their frantic style gave Juventus cause for concern, although a lack of a cutting edge up front was evident.
Following on from his early effort, Wanyama appeared desperate to burst the net whenever in possession and had a succession of efforts form distance with teammates pleading in vain for a pass.
The best chances of the opening period fell the way of Kris Commons from crosses supplied by his two full-backs. Both Emilio Izaguiire and Mikael Lustig went forward at every opportunity and had plenty of joy against Juventus’s wingback system. First from Izaguirre’s ball in, Commons failed to adjust his body and struck a wild left-footed effort over the bar. Then from Lustig on the over side, with the ball going behind him, Commons was able to strike an overhead kick from 12 yards that went inches past the post with Gianluigi Buffon unmoved.
For all Celtic’s territorial and possession advantage, Juventus still looked extremely dangerous with the Scottish league leaders especially susceptible to balls over the top—not a good thing when master-passer Andrea Pirlo is in the opposition ranks.
The half was also marked by an unsurprising tetchiness between the two sides. Scott Brown and Pirlo had one memorable running duel and Gary Hooper and Stephan Lichtsteiner another.
The second period began with Celtic again pressing, but struggling even more to pose any meaningful threat. Then, just past the hour mark came their best chance of the contest. Ambrose, so culpable for Celtic falling behind had a golden chance for redemption as Charlie Mulgrew’s cross sailed toward him unmarked just six yards out, but he badly mistimed his header and it went tamely into the ground and into the arms of Buffon.
Juventus manager Antonio Conte would surely have desired his side to have more control, but extended spells of possession continued to elude them. A rare attack from the Italian champions in the second period resulted in Mirko Vucinic having a shot blocked when he perhaps should have done better.
At 1-0 down it would still have been a huge task for Celtic in the second leg, but that challenge was then made highly improbable as Juventus struck a quick-fire double.
Matri was the architect of the first with a clever first-time pass to brilliantly pick out Marchisio down the left of the box and the midfielder deceived Brown by cutting back onto his right foot before calmly finishing past Forster.
With Celtic perhaps paying for their hectic pace throughout, just six minutes later it was 3-0. Ambrose was again responsible as he took far too long on the ball on the edge of his area, allowing Marchisio to knick the ball and slip it forward to Vucinic who slotted low into the net.
The atmosphere inside Celtic Park had suddenly changed into something more befitting a wake and Juventus assuredly played out the remaining minutes knowing that the return match should now be a mere formality.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.