By Paul Gardner
An intriguing game, the Celtic-Juventus Champions League clash. Intriguing and revealing. Because it did reveal some oft-obscured truths about the modern game: Truths About ...
… ITALIAN SOCCER: The 3-0 defeat that Celtic suffered -- on its home field -- was harsh, of course it was. But no one should be surprised when an Italian team wins away from home. They’ve been doing it for decades, so they’re masters of the art. Clever, resourceful, and canny in defense, swift, skillful and deadly on the counter. Masters at absorbing pressure, masters at scoring those breakaway goals.
Celtic surely knew, certainly should have known, all about that. Yet they played exactly the sort of game that Juventus might have wished for: waves of predictable attacking play, surges forward that left jittery defenders dangerously exposed.
In the old days, the days when the infamous catenaccio was at its zenith, back in the 1960s, a game like this would probably have seen Celtic with the lion’s share of possession, say 70%, and a scoreline of 1-0 to Juventus.
But things have changed. The ultra-defensive, game-killing rigidity of catenaccio has been laid to rest. Juventus had plenty of the ball against Celtic; the official stats actually show the Italians with a 51%-49% advantage. So the goalscoring opportunities are increased ... but with patience.
No waves of all-out attacking for Juventus, just probing and teasing -- but never, never in a way that found them outnumbered in defense. With an occasional long ball forward.
… CROSSES: Juventus, then, made use of a varied attack. No such comment can be made about the Celtic offense which, predictably, relied heavily on crosses -- or more accurately, high balls played into the Juventus goalmouth -- crosses, corner kicks, free kicks, long throws.
I counted 35 such high balls. None of them produced a goal (one of them probably should have done, but Efe Ambrose destroyed the chance by heading the ball weakly -- and straight at Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon).
Virtually all of these balls count as speculative -- not passes, simply balls that were dropped into the danger area, hoping that something would happen, hoping that it would be a Celtic player to get on the end of them. But how likely was that -- against an Italian defense, and one that knew what to expect anyway? “We saw they scored many goals from corners and with crosses into the box, so we tried our best to make it difficult for them,” was the comment of Claudio Marchisio, scorer of Juve’s second goal.
One day, some strangely distant day, it will occur to the minds who control British soccer that crosses are a demonstrably low-percentage method of scoring goals. In this game -- 35 crosses, no goals, only one shot on goal.
Ten minutes into the second half, TV commentator Davie Provan (a former Celtic player) observed that “Juventus have defended crosses really well tonight.” They had. But it was not difficult.
… THOSE EXTRA OFFICIALS: I mean the Additional Assistant Referees, the AARs, who stand on the goal line near the goal, one at each end, and are in radio contact with the referee. They tell him, it is believed, about incidents in the penalty area and, most importantly, they judge on whether the ball has crossed the goal line into the goal. They are, clearly, well-positioned to see all of that, better than the ARs, better than the referee.
They are the pet idea of UEFA president Michel Platini, his preferred option to goal-line technology (GLT). They sound like a great idea, but in practice they are proving to be of little use. Because they don’t seem to see anything. Prize Exhibit 1 came during Euro 2012 when the perfectly positioned AAR failed to validate a Ukrainian goal against England, even though the ball had clearly crossed the goal line.
Exactly the same thing happened in the Celtic-Juventus game. That early Juventus goal came after a shot from Alessandro Matri had been scrambled out of the Celtic goalmouth. At that point, no indication was given by any of the officials, so play continued for another couple of seconds, time enough for Marchisio to latch on to the loose ball and slam it into the net. At which point the referee blew for a goal. It is clear he was signaling a goal by Marchisio.
The official UEFA website gives the goal to Matri -- which is correct, both in terms of what actually happened, and in terms of fairness -- Matri’s shot clearly had entered the net. But the decision to award the goal to Matri is not correct, not technically correct, when referring to the referee’s action. He did not signal a goal after Matri’s shot, but only after Marchisio’s. The blame for that error lies squarely with the AAR who failed to see that the ball had entered the net. UEFA might like to explain how it is able to revisit that action and award a goal that the referee, by his lack of action, had ruled was not a goal.
... STAYING ON YOUR FEET: This is the war-cry of the anti-diving mob, who rant on about players who “go down too easily.” They should take a look at events right at the end of the first half of this game. In the 46th minute, Celtic’s Honduran defender Emilio Izaguirre had played the ball past Mirko Vucinic and was sprinting to catch up with it. Vucinic ran across and behind Izaguirre, lightly clipping his legs. “Not much contact there,” as the witless anti-divers would say -- but enough to cause Izaguirre to stumble as he ran forward, trying to stay on his feet. After two or three paces, Izaguirre lost his balance completely and pitched forward on to the ground. While this was happening, Vucinic was indicating that he hadn’t touched Izaguirre, and the ball ran over the sideline. So Izaguirre’s reward for trying to stay on his feet was that he lost control of the ball, he did not get a warranted free kick ... and Juventus got the throw-in. He also evoked this gem from commentator Davie Provan, who thought there should have been a free kick, but that Izaguirre “took too long to go down.”