When Celtic drew Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Barcelona back in August the popular opinion was that the Scottish side would be lucky to escape with a Europa League place. The reputation of the SPL was at its lowest in years – the UEFA coefficient currently ranks it 18th out of the member countries – and it had been almost ten years since Celtic were defeated by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the UEFA Cup Final. Even the official ITV twitter feed had a dig at the reigning SPL champions, tweeting ‘Bye Bye Celtic’ when the groups were announced.
A 0-0 result against Benfica at Parkhead proved nothing but the next match sparked hope. Gary Hooper opened the scoring at the Luzhniki Stadium before two goals from Emmanuel Emenike set Spartak on the road to an important three points. At the 63 minute mark Juan Insaurralde was shown red and the game was turned on its head. Suddenly, the People’s Team were on the back foot and Celtic were in full attack mode. The pressure proved too much for the Russians – an own goal and a 90th minute header from Georgios Samaras gave the Hoops a vital three points and some much needed encouragement.
Then came the toughest tie: Barcelona. Being universally praised as one of the best football teams of all time and with three Champions League wins since 2006, the Catalans were odds on favourites for a comfortable victory. It was much closer than expected and only a 94th minute goal from Jordi Alba separated the sides. The loss was anticipated but the performance was not. The Scots had restricted Barcelona’s usual space and Fraser Forster put on one of the best goal keeping performances of the entire stage.
The return leg will go down in Celtic history as one of the best European nights at Parkhead. The Hoops played a great counter-attacking game and exploited every mistake the Spaniards made. Goals from Victor Wanyama and 18-year-old Tony Watt put the Scots ahead and Celtic in dreamland. A late goal from Messi wasn’t enough and Celtic had secured a memorable three points.
Following a 2-1 loss to Benfica both the Portuguese and Scottish sides sat on seven points heading into the final game. As Barcelona held The Eagles to a goalless draw, goals from Hooper and Kris Commons downed Spartak and put Celtic through to the last 16.
There they will face a resurgent Juventus. For Celtic fans there is no fear – they have already beaten Barcelona. The Old Lady will perhaps prove a more difficult challenge than Barcelona. Juve were demoted in 2006 following the Calciopoli scandal and only last season, after many years failing to break into the Champions League spots, did they finally win their 28th Serie A trophy. They recently went on a 49 game winning streak (only broken in November) and they will be desperate to regain their European giants status. Helping eliminate reigning champions Chelsea showed they were contenders and they have serious ambitions of taking the biggest prize in football back to Turin.
Juve usually employ a 3-5-2 formation with a back three of Leonardo Bonucci – a man so hard he beat up an armed gunman – Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini providing Gigi Buffon with a solid defensive cover. The positive news for Celtic fans is that Chiellini is expected to miss the first leg through injury. Their central midfield is exceptional and perhaps the key asset of the team. The world class trio of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal are dangerous and Paul Pogba, who moved from Old Trafford to Turin last summer, has proven to be perhaps the best emerging midfielder in Europe.
There are weaknesses for Celtic to exploit though. The two wingers – normally Stephan Lichsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah – are responsible for both defensive and attacking duties. They are vital in creating opportunities and they stretch the opposing midfielders, providing more space for the central trio. If Celtic can limit the wingers they have a better chance of controlling the game and forcing Juve to play through the middle.
The main weakness for The Old Lady is up front. They don’t have a striker who can score goals regularly. Fernando Llorente has agreed to move to Turin in the summer but the short term problem needs to be addressed – Nicolas Anelka has been rumoured for a loan move but fans are reportedly not so keen on the idea. The nimble and creative Sebastian Giovinco is a handful but he’s not a number 9 and their highest scorers in the league, Quagliarella and Giovinco, are only on 6 goals, 11 behind Edison Cavani.
Celtic showed determination and spirit when they emerged from a very tough group to progress to the last 16 of the Champions League. Many pundits had written them off before the competition had even begun but an inspired victory over Barcelona proved that the Hoops could threaten any team on their day. Last season Apoel Nicosia – European minnows from Cyprus – came up against Zenit, Porto and Shakhtar. They topped the group and faced Lyon in the last 16. They won the tie. Eventually the might of Real Madrid proved too much but the team from the small island to the south of Turkey had overcome the odds to reach the quarter finals. Is it not possible that Celtic could do the same?
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