ON the big European nights it is usually only the eardrums that take a horrible pounding, but not this time.
Celtic's Parkhead fortress was reduced to rubble in the last 16 of the Champions League by a formidable Juventus team which delivered a brutal, wounding result. Two late goals took the sting out of the loud complaints Celtic would otherwise have voiced about the leniency shown to the Italians by referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. It was certainly baffling that the Spaniard did not punish Juventus for relentlessly manhandling Celtic players at corners and free-kicks.
Celtic are not out of the Champions League because of him, though. They had beaten a Barcelona team acclaimed by some as the finest in the world but Juventus turned out to be an entirely different, tougher proposition. The vulnerability in Barca's defence had been exploited by Celtic; Juve showed none. Andrea Pirlo did not orchestrate their win: their resolute defenders did, aided by the outstanding Claudio Marchisio in midfield and Alessandro Matri in attack. Those two both scored before Mirko Vucinici's late third.
Celtic fans have enjoyed months of chanting about going to Wembley – the final is held there in May – but that has been erased from the songbook now. All that awaits is a painful death march to the second leg in Turin on March 6, when only dignity, rather than a place in the last eight, can be earned. Over the years a series of exceptional performances have spared Celtic results like this against Europe's aristocracy, but the odds can be denied only so many times.
Parkhead brought its thunder, just as Neil Lennon had wanted and expected, but Juventus immediately produced a silencer. They tried to worry Celtic by hitting long balls to turn their central defenders and never was it more rewarding than after just three minutes. Suddenly Efe Ambrose was caught under a ball over the top and Matri was through on Fraser Forster. Matri poked a low shot through Forster's legs and over the line despite Kelvin Wilson's desperate attempt to hook it away. Marchisio following up to ram the rebound into the net.
The stands were never remotely close to silence, of course, but there was no doubting the puncturing influence of that Juventus goal. The Italians had an away goal which was liable to have a profound, perhaps fatal influence on the entire tie. There were passages of play when the 3000 visiting fans were heard rather than the vast home support. Juventus conquered Parkhead.
The late goals disguised what a battle it was. No quarter was asked for, nor given. Scott Brown, Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama, Kris Commons: every one of them was constantly engulfed by black shirts and the personal tussles all over the pitch were tough and unforgiving.
Parkhead soon made up its mind that Juventus – for all their talent and strength – were also masters of Italian football's traditional dark arts. When Celtic got corners the combat was heightened, with holding and shoving matches all over the box. When Stephan Lichtsteiner was booked for manhandling Hooper in the first half the Englishman, watched from the stand by his national manager Roy Hodgson, was also cautioned. The stands howled in frustration.
Celtic's work-rate was faultless. They pressed high up the field and tried constantly to harass and unsettle Juventus. They made chances, too, but Gigi Buffon seemed to have seduced the match ball given how many times it came obligingly into his arms. Wanyama and Commons, three times, had attempts which the goalkeeper saved without having to work. Celtic's finest chance in a compelling first half came when Mikael Lustig's cross was met by an overhead kick by Commons but the ball ran wide of the post.
Ambrose's culpability at the first goal might be attributed to the debilitating effects of flying back from the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa the day before the game. He was a surprise starter, but Georgios Samaras could not recover from an ankle injury and was not even on the bench. Hooper and James Forrest began up front but Lennon soon pushed Commons up to give each of Juventus's back three someone to cope with. Mournfully, for Celtic, Martin Caceres, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were up to the task.
When a Celtic forward had the ball at his feet, he was crowded and dispossessed. One exception to that in the second half came when Muglrew picked out Ambrose but his desperately disappointing header landed in the arms of Buffon.
With 17 minutes left Tony Watt came on for Commons in the hope that his winner against Barcelona might have a similarly glorious sequel. The change merely allowed the teenager to be a participant in Celtic's collapse.
Matri opened them up with a delicious ball to Marchisio, who finished clinically. Juventus soon produced a similar move to score again, this time Ambrose being dispossessed by Matri before Marchisio seized possession and played in Vucinic to score.
Suddenly all the fun had gone for Celtic. The thrill had become a torture. Who, now, has any stomach for what awaits in Turin?