For all his current travails with Sunderland, Martin O’Neill must have allowed himself a wry smile when former club Celtic were paired with Italian giants Juventus in the Champions League draw this week.
More than a decade has passed since the Parkhead side went head to head with the Old Lady of Italian football during their maiden foray into European football’s most prestigious competition.
In many respects, the matches against Juventus that year (2001) set down the general trend for the Hoops’ European adventures for those next ten years +. That is, swashbuckling and memorable wins in Glasgow against some of Europe’s great sides, starkly contrasting with ill-fortune and ultimate disappointment on their travels.
One abiding memory of the match in Turin is of O’Neill’s tantrum near the end, as Juventus grabbed the winner courtesy of a decidedly soft penalty kick. Nicola Amoruso was the striker whose theatrical tumble so incensed O’Neill, and ensured he would never receive the welcome mat down Glasgow’s east end.
Not that those affiliated with Celtic hold a grudge or anything –perish the thought that any football fan would entertain the very notion! But it was interesting to note that current boss Neil Lennon (who played that night in Turin) brought the matter of the penalty award up as recently as earlier this year, when then Juventus boss Marcello Lippi visited these shores for a coaching course.
Lippi sought questions from the floor that evening, and Lennon clearly could not resist raising the issue. The exchange went thus:
‘Okay, eleven years ago in Turin. Was it a penalty?’ Lennon enquired.
‘Ah’, replied Lippi, ‘Some decisions you get, some decisions you don’t.’
Little doubt a chuckle went round the room that evening, partly in light of the philosophical nature of the reply, but mainly because it was tantamount to an admission that it wasn’t a spot kick in a month of Sundays!
Not that humour was to the fore back then, of course. O’Neill was sent to the stand such was the ferocity of his protestations against the decision, albeit a modicum of revenge was exacted in the return match, when Celtic ran out 4-3 winners in one of the best European matches played at Parkhead in modern times.
That said, it may be recalled that, even then, the Italians had the last laugh. When Porto qualified with them from the group at Celtic’s expense, following their victory against Rosenburg.
Lennon was less animated when watching the last 16 draw for this season's competition the other day, surrounded by his squad and backroom staff. While acknowledging the scale of the task, the Irishman exuded a quiet confidence that his charges could cause another shock in a campaign during which they have continued to confound those who had written off (or worse still, ridiculed) their chances of making an impression of any consequence on the competition.
‘This is their time,’ he said. ‘We know they are going to be two monumentally difficult games.’ Then he added: ‘But why not?’
Why not, indeed. Lennon’s words had a familiar ring to them, given he has been churning them out regularly with each passing group stage match. And none more so than the two heart-thumping ties against perennial competition favourites Barcelona, which –in case anyone didn’t notice – ended up with a 3-3 aggregate score line.
This, of course, should not be taken to mean that Celtic are likely to prevail against Juventus, far less win the Champions League. (Not that this has prevented the eternal optimists among the club’s support from raising the odd chant of ‘We’re going to Wembley’, a reference to the venue for the final next May). However, Celtic’s very presence among the elite of the Champions League beyond the festive period means they are deserving of respect, grudging or otherwise.
Meanwhile, the name of a certain Andrea Pirlo will inevitably arise frequently over the coming weeks. Lennon himself ensured as much with his initial observations on the 33-year-old Italian midfield maestro. ‘If you are to prevail, then he is the one you have to keep an eye on,’ he said.
Few would disagree with those sentiments of course. But those with a keen eye for detail won’t be worried about the damage Pirlo could inflict upon Celtic, so much as intrigued by the message that defeat against Juventus is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Surely Celtic can’t extend their Champions League odyssey further still with victory against the Italian champions. Can they? The answer, if Lennon and his confident squad of players are to be believed, is a resounding yes.
Meanwhile, you suspect that nobody would be more delighted than Martin O’Neill should Celtic advance to the quarter-finals in February at Juventus’ expense.