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Understanding the finer points allows Italians to be blunt

THE airwaves and acres of newsprint have been inordinately deluged by the world wrestling event that took place in the east end of Glasgow on Tuesday night.

Juventus identified the success Celtic have had when Gary Hooper stands in front of the goalkeeper at set-pieces
Juventus identified the success Celtic have had when Gary Hooper stands in front of the goalkeeper at set-pieces

There has been a mixture of surprise, outrage and philosophical acceptance over the tactics used by Juventus at set-pieces during their last-16 Champions League tie with Celtic.

The robust and illegal moves were, of course, only part of the story and not the complete truth of how the Italian side strode towards the quarter-finals with only the formality of 90 minutes to complete in Turin on March 6. Gianluca Vialli, the former Italian internationalist, spoke yesterday of how Celtic should have had two penalties and Trevor Francis, once a player with Sampdoria, said he had never witnessed such unpunished antics in the area.

These were tasty soundbites but the words from Sid Lowe, a journalist specialising in Spanish football, and Arturo Vidal, the Juventus midfielder, offered substantial meat to the event at Celtic Park. Lowe, speaking on radio yesterday, was not surprised by the attitude of Alberto Mallenco, the Spanish referee, at set-pieces. He said this wrestling happened constantly in Spain and the attitude from officials is to stop the game and tell the offending players not to do it before whistling for the corner to be taken. He added: "But while a warning is often given, a penalty virtually never is."

This is precisely what happened at Parkhead with four bookings – two to each side – but no penalty award after continued jostling at all 10 of Celtic's corners.

Vidal was succinct, but informative. "Celtic's strengths were at corners and Stephan Lichtsteiner got into a few situations, but we had studied them," he said.

This is the big story about Juventus. Their preparation was exhaustive, comprehensive. The Italian camp spoke on Monday about how Celtic scored 40% of their Champions League goals from headers, how set-pieces had undone Spartak Moscow, Barcelona and Benfica, with special mention being made of Gary Hooper's role in Lisbon of standing in front of the goalkeeper at corners.

Antonio Conte, the impressive Juventus coach, thus studied Celtic closely but did he also scrutinise the referee in the manner of rugby coaches before a big match? Mallenco, who has been in charge of 21 Champions League matches and three ties at the 2010 World Cup, is a highly-regarded official and his attitude to penalty-box incidents at set-pieces would not be hard to discern.

The bald conclusion is either that Juventus were prepared to concede a penalty or that their research produced evidence that such an award was unlikely. There would be nothing sinister about this, rather it would be excellent preparation of the type so obvious in other areas of the pitch.

It was in those areas that the match was won comfortably. The strength of Juventus was their flexibility to change and to exploit Celtic's weaknesses. The long ball over Kelvin Wilson and the befuddled Efe Ambrose was the tactic that kept on giving.

Juventus, too, were content to allow Celtic the ball in front of their back line, believing the estimable Gianluigi Buffon would field any shots from beyond the area. With set-pieces almost nullified – Wanyama and Ambrose twice had free headers amid the mayhem – and Celtic firing in from range, the chance of a Celtic goal was an overhead kick from Kris Commons that slid wide.

The capabilities of Juventus were thus clearly visible and surely unexpected. Their domestic and European record shows them to be a formidable side who will almost certainly win Serie A and will have ambitions of progressing beyond the last eight in the Champions League. There are some who mutter that the Italians cannot be considered in the same breath as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund as potential winners of the tournament but Chelsea were hardly highly fancied last year, yet prevailed.

The immediate ambitions for Celtic are considerably more humble. Neil Lennon will take his side to Turin hoping to make the match competitive even if the tie is long gone.

The reflections on Celtic will centre on the performance of Ambrose, who seemed to come into the side straight from the arrivals section of Glasgow airport. "I wanted the pace at centre-half plus he and Kelvin been fantastic together in Europe," the Celtic manager tweeted last night in response to criticism of his selection of the Nigerian, who won the Africa Cup of Nations with his national team on Sunday.

It was unwise to select Ambrose in the wake of such a long flight and a draining final but the mistakes the defender made were worryingly characteristic. He has been a great signing for the club but he also has the capacity to make errors. He was at fault at two goals on Tuesday night with fallibilities he has shown in domestic games, namely being caught under the ball and in possession when trying to bring it out.

Celtic, indeed, played close to their character for good and ill. Wanyama, powerful and tidy, will have impressed watching Arsenal scouts, Commons was busy and clever and Emilio Izaguirre looked back to the player he was before his ankle injury. Scott Brown, however, was indisciplined and was lucky to stay on the park when his kick at a Juventus player off the ball went unseen and unpunished.

The truth is that Celtic need both to play at their best and to enjoy some fortune to compete with Juventus. Neither eventuality transpired amid the din of Parkhead. They cannot be consoled by the result. A place in the last eight is beyond the club but this was a week, too, when they stretched clear at the top of the league while posting six-month profits pre-tax of almost £15m.

One dream has died but the reality is far from unpalatable.

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