Celtic 0-3 Juventus: Celtic cause problems in the first half, but Juve’s finishing far superior

February 12, 2013

The starting line-ups - Celtic's front three was fluid

There was much to admire about Celtic’s performance, but they couldn’t sustain their early effort.

Neil Lennon decided to use Efe Ambrose at the back, despite his participation in Nigeria’s 1-0 Africa Cup of Nations win on Sunday evening. Upfront, Lennon used three attackers – Kris Commons, James Forrest and Gary Hooper.

Antonio Conte is still without Giorgio Chiellini, so Martin Caceres was on the left of defence, and Federico Peluso was the left-wing-back. Alessandro Matri’s good run of form saw him get another start upfront.

An odd match – for spells in the first half Juventus looked genuinely rattled, and yet they had already gone 1-0 up with Matri’s early goal. Celtic’s first-half performance depended on energy and brave pressing, which resulted in tiredness late on.


Lennon used a strategy that a few Serie A sides have tried this season against Juve – including Inter, when Andrea Stramaccioni inflicted Conte’s first league defeat as Juve coach. That was to play three out-and-out forwards, but ask one of them to drop onto Andrea Pirlo when Juventus had possession. Pirlo is clearly Juventus’ key player and requires significant attention despite his deep positioning, but by using one of the three attackers as his ‘marker’, it allows that player to spin in behind when his side win the ball, meaning Juve are defending three-against-three, rather than having a spare man at the back.

In that sense, Celtic almost played two different formations. A 4-3-3 with the ball, a 4-3-1-2ish shape when Juve had possession. It meant dominance of the midfield zone (with three additional midfielders outnumbering Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal) and a decent situation on the flanks, full-back against wing-back – although this relied on the rest of the side dominating possession, and forcing Juve’s wing-backs towards their own goal.

Juve attack 2 v 2

However, Celtic’s problem was that by matching Juve elsewhere and negating their opponents’ spare man at the back, Celtic had to play two-against-two at the back themselves. This wasn’t necessarily a problem – except it was, by virtue of poor performances from the centre-backs. The first goal was a disaster – Matri spun in behind Ambrose easily to finish – but equally problematic was the positioning of the left-sided centre-back, Kelvin Wilson, who wasn’t remotely in a good covering position.

A feature of Celtic’s defensive play was how tightly the centre-backs stuck to the strikers, treating them as individual battles. Celtic’s defence wouldn’t have conceded that goal had they been against Matri alone – Wilson would have instinctively understood he was supposed to cover in behind. Nor would Celtic have conceded that goal if they were three-against-two at the back, because the sweeper would have cleaned up.

Adapting to playing against two strikers (and Juve’s unusual 3-5-2 formation allows them to play two ‘proper’ strikers, not one always forced to drop deep and link play) is a tricky situation with so many sides playing one upfront, and in a subtle way, the numbers game backfired on Celtic for that goal. There were also other dangerous situations later in the half, when Pirlo got more freedom and knocked the ball in behind the defence with typical precision.

Celtic pressure

But make no mistake – in the opening half hour Celtic put Juventus under considerable pressure, with the Italian champions’ backline consistently forced into crucial headed clearances. The home side’s pressing meant Juve couldn’t get into any passing rhythm, and Celtic dominated in terms of both possession and territory. That forced Juve’s wing-backs towards their own goal, providing extra numbers for their deep, penalty box defending, which in turned allowed Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre forward to stretch the play and cross the ball.

In particular, Celtic were dominant down the left. Whereas right-sided Scott Brown charged forward energetically, Charlie Mulgrew played a more intelligent role, forming a nice triangle with Izaguirre and Forrest – who, in the opening stages, played to the left of the three Celtic forwards, and also as the deepest. Izaguirre’s twelve crosses were more than Juventus managed as a team.

Another problem for Juventus was their lack of a cohesive pressing system in the early stages. Whereas sometimes Victor Wanyama motored forward to shut down Pirlo at transitions, Pirlo was more reluctant to come up the pitch to do the reverse, while Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio had their own responsibilities either side. Pirlo’s defensive role wasn’t clear, and in the early stages Celtic got too much time to shoot from just outside the penalty box; Wanyama had a long-range drive after a minute, then another after five. Commons had a couple of chances from a similar position when he dropped away from the centre-backs – in particular, a drilled shot that was right down Gigi Buffon’s throat. None of these were golden chances, but they were all significant enough to worry Juve.

And then there was the set-piece threat. Celtic’s corners prompted some almighty wrestling matches in the penalty box, but more significant were two free headers – Wanyama’s just before half-time, Ambrose’s after an hour. Poor finishing kept Juve’s clean sheet intact.

Juve take control

Conte seemed to ask Vucinic to play a deeper role in the second half – closer to Wanyama, which meant Celtic’s midfield dominance was less obvious. At the other side of the midfield zone, Pirlo was now getting more time on the ball, as Celtic’s forwards struggled to get back and pick him up (if we go back to Stramaccioni’s slightly fortunate but nevertheless noteworthy strategy earlier in the season, this was the point where he introduced a forward-playing midfield destroyer, Fredy Guarin, in place of a forward to maintain the pressure). Removing Commons, the man most frequently picking up Pirlo in the first half, for the youngster Tony Watt, was Lennon’s first tactical switch.

But that was a microcosm of Celtic’s problem – tiredness. Their pressing wasn’t as intense, and when given time on the ball, Juve’s raw quality shone through. The final 20 minutes was a reminder of the sheer difference in quality between the sides (none of the Celtic players would get into the Juventus side – Izaguirre would probably be the closest) and the individual performances were crucial at both ends. Juve’s centre-backs are all extremely capable and Celtic’s finishing was wasteful, Celtic’s defending for the goals was terrible, and Juve’s finishing was ruthless.

Marchisio scored a fine goal following the type of run he continually makes – in behind the centre-backs when they’re pulled out of position by the two strikers, something particularly obvious at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. Interestingly, after this game Conte said that “Matri contributed to a fine goal [Marchisio's], it came from a situation we had practiced many times in training.” Training ground preparation was also cited for the equaliser at Stamford Bridge, that also involved pulling defenders out of position then attacking the space.

Juve’s third goal came after Matri was replaced by midfielder Paul Pogba, as Juve’s dominance became so complete that Vucunic didn’t even need a partner to score goals. Juve slowed the tempo down to good effect in the final few minutes.


Tactically, Celtic did pretty much everything that could be asked of them – they pressed Pirlo early on, dominated the midfield against one of the best trios in Europe, and created half-chances from range, and clear chances from set-pieces. The opening goal was the killer – it meant that Celtic had to keep pushing to get back in the tie. It’s all hypothetical, of course, but had Wilson covered better for the first goal, and Wanyama or Ambrose buried their header, Celtic probably wouldn’t have looked quite so lame in the final stages as they would have been able to sit deeper.

For Juventus this was a relatively underwhelming performance, but an excellent result considering Celtic’s record at home in European competition. They took too long to get going here, but Conte probably knew his side would come good after Celtic’s pressing dropped – Vidal and Marchisio might not have contributed much in the early stages, but few sides possesses two such energetic, vertical and technically gifted midfielders. They could do with Chiellini back to help defend set-pieces, though.

(The other tie – PSG v Valencia – will be covered in the second leg!)

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