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Spiers on Sport: Juve serve Lennon a reality check

Football throws up these emphatic, sometimes cruel judgments.

Neil Lennon vents his frustration
Neil Lennon vents his frustration

Celtic were nowhere near as poor as their 3-0 home defeat to Juventus suggested, though Neil Lennon will look back on this Champions League match and rue his team selection.

Efe Ambrose has looked an excellent defender since his arrival in Glasgow from the obscurity of Israeli football last summer. That said, Lennon would know with hindsight that he shouldn’t have selected the player to face Juve, given the numerous mistakes he made.

Ambrose cost Celtic two goals on the night, both a result of his sluggishness and uncertainty over the ball. Given his display, having just stepped off a flight from Africa after a glorious Cup of Nations with Nigeria 48 hours earlier, we can say beyond reproach that Ambrose should never have been on the park.

The defender had doubtless urged his own selection by Neil Lennon, but it was a decision which backfired on Celtic.

The defeat left Celtic with an impossible task in Italy on March 6. Yet this was a strange game in Glasgow, with a buoyant Celtic, especially in their energetic first half, nowhere near as bad as the scoreline suggests.

It was also ironic that one of the best chances to fall to Celtic – and at a critical time of the match – fell to the same Ambrose after 63 minutes.

The Nigerian had a chance to level the tie at 1-1 with a free header right in front of Gigi Buffon. But, with time and space at hand, Ambrose looked taken aback at Charlie Mulgrew’s cross reaching him, and headed tamely at the goalkeeper.

Celtic played impressively in parts, in an often niggly match, but goals from Alessandro Matri, Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic have put this last-16 tie out of reach.

What did it all mean for Neil Lennon? Quite a few things, not least a sobering slap in the face for the Celtic manager after his recent, impressive run of European matches.

Under Lennon, Celtic had lost just one of their last nine home games in Europe, a run which included that headline-grabbing slaying of Barcelona. Celtic’s young manager had been rightly lauded for it. Now he has grounds for reflection.

Ambrose was a misjudgement. Celtic also lacked height in the final third of the field, which the missing Georgios Samaras might in part have resolved.

Strangely, this was also a game in which James Forrest, who has flourished under Lennon, for some obscure reason failed to get going.

Celtic missed Samaras – which would have been a remarkable statement to make just two years ago. But it was true.

The Greek striker, who missed the match through a hamstring injury, would have given Celtic a rangy presence which they sorely lacked on the night.

A 60,000 Celtic Park sell-out had to take it all in with some stoicism.

It is often said that Celtic’s ground puts on a colour and pageantry unlike most others on these occasions, but Juve came to Glasgow and put it all under a shroud.

With their traditional rivals in relative oblivion, the SPL has been more humdrum for Celtic this season, and their league crowds have noticeably slumped. But when 60,000 gather inside Parkhead for these Champions League games you are reminded again of Glasgow’s raw passion for football.

That noise, though, scarcely bothered Andrea Pirlo and Juventus. Indeed, it is one of football’s quaint myths that skilful, expensive footballers are somehow scared by a crowd. I’ve just seen the theory being further disproved.

All said and done, Celtic remain in a good place. Their half-year financial figures, showing turnover rocketing by 71% and a £15m pre-tax profit, reveal a club that is in rude good health off the park.

On it, reaching the last 16 this season has been no mean feat. In Victor Wanyama, as he proved again against Juventus, Celtic also have a midfield enforcer who promises a vast profit on sale.

Celtic lost against Juventus. But they are succeeding in much else.

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