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No surprising the Old Lady

THEY strode in to the room with a poise that stated simply that big-time football was back in Glasgow.

Juventus believe they can nullify any lift from the '12th man'
Juventus believe they can nullify any lift from the '12th man'

Antonio Conte, the Juventus coach, was a Champions League winner as a player. Gianluigi Buffon, his 35-year-old goalkeeper, is a World Cup winner. A packed media gathering at Celtic Park was hardly designed to discomfit them.

They played every bouncing ball of a question with a practised ease, a consistent politeness and a measured intelligence. Conte was generous in his praise of the Celtic side, singling out Gary Hooper as a player who could excel in Serie A, while Buffon dismissed the notion of the Parkhead crowd as a powerful 12th man and also raised questions about whether the absence of Rangers from the Clydesdale Bank Premier League may leave Celtic unused to high-octane collisions.

Both also found time to comment on the resignation of the Pope after an Italian journalist questioned them on their reaction to news that might just dwarf the update on the hamstring injury to Georgios Samaras as the main news this morning. It was all a gently intriguing appetiser to what should be a meaty main course tonight.

For the record, Buffon politely stated this was not the time and the place to discuss religious matters – possibly forgetting he was in Glasgow – and Conte stated simply. "I'm Catholic but this is a situation that I don't really feel qualified enough to say. It's probably best received privately and reflected upon."

He was much more expansive when asked to comment on the strengths of Celtic. Any sceptic who doubts the depth of Italian preparations would be converted by Conte's answer. "They have good players throughout the team. The heart and soul of it seems to be Scott Brown. Alongside him is Victor Wanyama who, as well as being technically good, has an impressive physique. Gary Hooper up front is a player who could, with the greatest of respect to Scotland, excel in our championship in Italy. He is a very fast player who attacks the spaces very well and is a good finisher. Samaras attacks the spaces very well and is another who has an imposing physique, as well as being technical. I like Kelvin Wilson, and the goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who is a very young player with a very good future.

"Celtic are not unknown to us and we have certainly not underestimated them. They have not just played well in the SPL, not many teams could beat Barcelona at home and lose just narrowly to them away from home."

This answer approaches the comprehensive but Conte also revealed he expects his side to play an attacking game, in response to a suggestion that Celtic were preparing to hit on the counterattack.

The softly spoken but belligerent noises from the Italian may be more than bluff, as Conte knows the possible consequence of sitting deep and conceding free-kicks in the final third. An Italian journalist, skirting matters of papal accession, pointed out 40% of Celtic goals in the Champions League this season had been scored from headers.

The Juventus coach replied: "We have looked at Celtic very closely. We have seen they have a clear physical threat and the average height of their players is probably above the norm. They are very good at set plays but that is not their only threat and we have to be very careful. It's not a surprise because British football has always been strong on set pieces. I wouldn't read too much into what Neil Lennon says about planning to counterattack. In terms of our own approach, if we lose the match then it will be because we have attacked and tried to win."

Any loss tonight will not be blamed either on the passion of the Celtic crowd. Buffon fielded the inevitable question about the question of intimidation with the sangfroid of a goalkeeper who has won the greatest competition in the world with his national side. "The atmosphere here is very British in many ways," he said of a packed Parkhead. "But as far as I am aware no fan has ever scored a goal.

"The crowd can help Celtic but only to a certain point. The opponents can't get carried away with it. You have to concentrate on your own game. As far as the most hostile atmospheres I have played in, I would probably have to say in Turkey – at Fenerbahce and Galatasaray."

More interestingly, he questioned whether Celtic might be affected by not playing in "high-tension matches" of late, particularly against Rangers. "This is a very peculiar situation," he said of the effect on the Celtic players. "It would change from player to player, not having the psychological impact of so many high-tension matches. We often have high-pressure matches and, if you don't for two or three weeks, you can let your guard down and it is very difficult to get that level of tension back again.

"It happened when myself and the manager played together. Maybe having won the Italian championship a few weeks before, we let our guard down and didn't play well in a couple of finals and lost. Maybe Celtic players will have appreciated relaxing a little bit before these games, but it wouldn't be ideal for me in my own situation. Who knows for them?"

It was left to Conte to face the trickiest question of the evening. How grateful was he to Rangers for the use of the Murray Park training facilities?

"I was a bit surprised. It was only really through the Italian press that I learned there was such surprise and astonishment here in Scotland that we had used Rangers' pitch," he said. "I have to say I found some of the criticisms rather strange. The choice was a purely technical one. The clubs were able to reach this agreement. We needed a training pitch with two goalposts, and as far as I am concerned that is it."

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