On Tuesday the 12th February, Celtic will take on the Old Lady, as Juventus are known in Italy, a term of affectionate endearment for some, and of scathing abuse for the rest. But Celtic should beware, because this particular Old Lady is in fine form, remarkably fit and healthy for one her age. Juventus, the current Italian Champions, sit five points clear at the top of Serie A, above Napoli, and a further 8 points ahead of 3rd placed Lazio. Given that their two traditional rivals for the title, AC and Inter Milan, can only share 4th place, it is very likely that the Old Lady will retain her title this season .
But is she good enough to end Celtic’s Champion League hopes and go on to lift the big one? The Bookies are giving an almost unanimous yes to the first part, eliminating Celtic, but a solid no to the second, based on a belief that Juventus while a sound team, lack the overall class required to win the whole tournament. If you fancy Celtic to beat Juventus at home, you can get odds of around 4-1 on Betfair. If you fancy them to avoid defeat at home at Celtic Park there are very generous odds of less than evens. ie you can win £100 on Celtic winning or drawing while only losing £88 if Juventus win. In all the Group games the Betfair layers grossly underpriced Celtic, allowing GGW to fill its boots. Laying Juventus not to win on Tuesday night at 1.88 seems equally generous and GGW would strongly recommend Celtic supporters take advantage of these odds. Betfair have Juventus at as strong as 5-1 on to reach the quarter finals, reflecting a general expectation throughout Europe that Celtic’s challenge will not survive the encounter with the Old Lady. However Juventus are 12-1 against to win the trophy, with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all rated as far likelier winners
So how good are this Juventus side? The current team are more utilitarian than previous classic Juve sides, and lack star players with the glamour and class associated with the glorious Juventus past, like Platini and Zidane. Pirlo is the closest thing the current side have to that illustrious pair. Yet while he he is still a world class player, (remember Euro 2012 where he was the key to Italian success) he lacks the extra dimension of pure genius that separates out the very best from the merely very good. Buffon, who seems to have been the Juventus goalkeeper for ever, is also a world class player even now, but none of the rest of the Juventus squad have made the leap beyond international class to the very top tier. As a result the current Juventus team are workmanlike rather than inspiring, but while they have lost in terms of creative flair, they have maybe gained in efficiency and collective cohesiveness. Over the last 18 months they have become extremely difficult to defeat, without making many new friends or even admirers.
Celtic will face one of the few top class teams in the world to regularly commit to a back three system, something Neil Lennon seems to have flirted with as a notion but never really committed to. The normal back three, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini are all current Italian internationalists and bring a rugged enthusiasm to ensuring forwards do not prosper against them. The two Juventus wingbacks, Lichtsteiner the Swiss internationalist on the right, and Asamoah the talented Ghananian on the left, are sufficiently advanced and adventurous to justify the 3:5 rather than 5:3 description, but are still defensively sound. Pirlo tends to be anchored in front of this back three, supported by the highly rated Arturo Vidal from Chile and Marchisio, a classic Italian “water carrier”.
It is beyond this solid eightsome base that Juventus’s lack of class begins to show. Frankly they do not have a single top class forward. Their three main strikers are Vucinic, Quagliarella and Matri. All three have been capped, the former for Macedonia and the latter two by Italy, but have not yet established themselves as international class and seem closer to journeymen than superstars. For home games, coach Conte often starts with Vucinic and one or other of the Italian two on the pitch. For away games he prefers to start with Vucinic backed up by Giovinco, a small skilful but lightweight Italian. Such is the collective cohesiveness of the team and the system Conte has them play, that the midfield five have contributed almost as many goals as all the strikers.
There was strong speculation that Juventus were going to address the lack of true class up front during the Winter Transfer Window by bringing forward the arrival of Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao from the summer of 2013. It was rumoured that Matri and Quagliarella would be sold, along with Nicolas Bendtner who has impressed Juventus supporters even less than he did those of Arsenal. But the window closed with all three still on the books, and Llorente still chafing in Spain. The only arrival was Nicolas Anelka, the most expensive footballer ever, if all his transfer fees are added up. But now well past a motivated best, he cost Juventus little and will likely deliver the same. So Celtic defenders need have no sleepless nights worrying about Juventus strikers, but will need to beware the shooting potential of all 5 midfielders.
The centre of defence will be crowded and Celtic lack forwards with the class, skill and guile to outwit three international centre backs so the best chance of Celtic success is to go wide and exploit the empty space behind the two wing backs. So Commons, Forrest and Samaras may be the key for Celtic success,
Juventus faced a harder task than Celtic on Saturday, having to play a revitalised Fiorentina still chasing a Champions League slot. Unlike Celtic who were able to play almost a whole team of reserves, Juventus played only two players unlikely to start against Celtic. This strong line-up were able to rebuff the spirited challenge of the Viola from Florence and goals from Vucinic and Matri gave them the three points that have consolidated their lead at the top of the Italian table. The lack of any meaningful challenger in Scotland meant that Celtic were able to rest almost their entire first eleven, but that advantage may well be negated by the lack of regular top class football the club (and supporters) have to endure week after boring week. As Celtic has demonstrated too often this season it is hard to maintain top form in the absence of regular competitive challenge. So the extra rest may have exacerbated this problem rather than giving Celtic an advantage.
The demands of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament on the two clubs have ended up cancelling out. Juventus will have the marginal advantage that Kwanoah Asamoah, their highly talented left wing back, finished his tournament on Saturday night while Celtic’s Efe Ambrose has his last game on Sunday, in the Final for Nigeria against Burkina Faso. It is likely neither will start on Tuesday night, with De Ceglie a sound replacement for Juventus
Juventus are hard to defeat away from Turin, only AC Milan have beaten them on their travels this season. Celtic can expect the Italian champions to play it very tight at Parkhead and no-one should expect many goals. This Juventus team are hard to beat but they are not unbeatable, and they are certainly not anywhere near as talented individually or collectively as Barcelona. So with a degree of luck and much determination, Celtic can approach the two matches with some prospect of success. Juventus are rightly favourites to make it through to the next round after two tense encounters but the odds of 5-1 on are insulting to a determined Celtic team. And GGW are fairly confident that Celtic can keep the tie alive through to the second leg by not losing on Tuesday night, and will be laying Juventus not to win at the generous odds of less than evens still available.