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Big boys back in town to hand out some black eyes

THE big boys were back in town.

The Juventus players celebrate in front of their fans knowing that their progress is effectively secured
The Juventus players celebrate in front of their fans knowing that their progress is effectively secured

They strode on to the turf, dressed in fashionable black, to a welcome of flashing lights from the football paparazzi. There has not been so many photographers in one spot since Lindsay Lohan stumbled out of her local and fished for her car keys.

The unmistakable feeling of an occasion of importance that had been growing in the city centre of Glasgow all day suddenly crystallised in the chill of the east end air under the glare of the sort of media attention that Scottish football once took as its birth right. This was bright lights, big city. And big match. It was a great occasion ultimately met with massive disappointment for the Celtic support as the three-goal margin achieved by Juventus ensures it will be the Italians who retain an interest in the Champions League beyond March 6.

The spectacular atmosphere of last night's collision at Parkhead had an added edge because of its unfamiliarity in recent times. AC Milan, Fiorentina and Internazionale have passed through in the sharp end of the European Cup with varied fortunes.

The Old Lady of Juventus visited to provide Celtic's first post-Christmas adventure in the Champions League since 2008 and the air of anticipation was both heightened by the presence of such as Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon and Mirko Vucinic and suddenly punctured after three minutes of the match. A long ball over the top found Efe Ambrose perhaps wondering what continent he was on and the ball finished in the net from Alessandro Matri after the sort of series of incidents that once demanded the creation of the word stramash.

It was a curious goal in European football from the sort of pass that one does not normally associate with the Juventus aristocrats who employ the sublime Pirlo and worship such as Michel Platini and Liam Brady in their collective memory.

However, Italian football has always been icily pragmatic. They devise a strategy and follow it with a devotion not seen outside an evangelical church. Antonio Conte, in his pre-match press conference, ominously rattled off a list of Celtic players with their attributes, showing that the homework had been done. It would have been absurd to assume that the Juventus coach had spent much of the time before the match doing anything else than studying his opponents, but the message was delivered that the Italians knew the enemy.

They identified two areas: one to exploit, the other to negate. The first concerned the regular use of the long ball over the top. One came to see Pirlo probing and prompting with short, sharp passes into the feet of his front player and the 33-year-old essayed some of these trademark touches in the second half but the order in the first half seemed to be to play the ball quickly and high to Vucinic and Matri.

The first attempt paid the substantial dividend of an away goal and Juventus felt there was further capacity for reward. This did not materialise in the first half but the two abrupt finishes by Claudio Marchisio and Vucinic showed the brutal, ruthless side of Italian finishing.

This termination of the match as a contest came after more than an hour of Celtic hope and hyperactivity. They tried to force their way back into tie but their efforts were considerably hampered by the second element of Juventus play.

There was once the vaguely racist cliche that foreign teams would wilt at the first sign of raised studs or physical play but Juventus defended with a strength that was tangible to the Celtic players. They stood firm, they tracked runs, they closed down space and they wrestled when all else failed.

Conte knew that Celtic were dangerous at set-pieces, so corners became reminiscent of chucking out time at the Sarry Heid. Stephan Lichtsteiner deposited Gary Hooper into the net at one point and both players were booked after a protracted period of physical contact at a corner that almost constituted the consummation of a civil partnership.

The referee, Alberto Undiano Mallenco of Spain, seemed the only one to adopt a hands-off approach to events in the area and his reluctance to be censorious drew the ire of the Parkhead crowd. The cries of "Same Old Juve, Always Cheating" rang around the goal in reference to the Calciopoli scandal but Juventus played the referee to the limits before stretching beyond Celtic.

If they were muscular in their approach, they were also clever and adroit. They sensed the weakening of Celtic and punished them on the break while still retaining an unforgiving approach at the back. The exemplar of their attitude was the combative Martin Caceres. There was a moment of stunned wonder when the Uruguayan stopped in the first half to address the small matter of his undone ponytail. It was a sight akin to seeing Mike Tyson climb into the ring in a tutu.

Defenders such as Caceres traditionally do not have ponytails but broken noses and scarred foreheads. However, he testified to the truth that Juventus were both better and stronger than Celtic.

The big boys were back in town and the Bhoys were bullied and beaten up.

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