Celtic's Lack Of Squad Depth: Corporate Complacency Or Result of The Harsh Economy?

When fit and fresh, the Celtic team that beat Barcelona in a memorable run to the knockout stages have no case to answer but the same cannot be said of Celtic’s supporting cast. Why is that?
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When fit and fresh, the Celtic team that beat Barcelona in a memorable run to the knockout stages have no case to answer but the same cannot be said of Celtic’s supporting cast. Why is that?

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For the massed ranks of Celtic fans who travelled to Parkhead both in hope and expectation, ahead of their last 16 Champions League first leg against Juventus, the prevailing emotion this morning will be that, having dared to dream, they have been served up an object lesson in the vanity of human wishes.

A typical Parkhead European night crowd that were fervent enough to drown out the hallowed tones of The Champions League theme tune were silenced within 180-odd seconds of the kick-off by Matri’s sucker-punch opener - setting the tone for a night of lost illusions and crushing disappointment.

Though a 3-0 scoreline appeared harsh on Celtic, it also underlined the gulf in both class and top level experience between the gallant Scots and Antonio Conte’s Juventus.

And so, Celtic’s Champions League adventure appeared to end with an uncharacteristic whimper.

There will be nothing but likely pride to play for in what, barring a miracle befitting the home of 'The Shroud of Turin', will likely prove to be an anti-climatic second leg.

When the hangovers subside thoughts will inevitably turn to apportioning blame - such is the way of things.

Efe Ambrose, the Nigerian central defender, has certainly seen his stock plummet from hero to zero in the space three short days. Having tasted Africa Cup of Nations glory on Sunday in South Africa, Ambrose will carry the can for glaring errors that gifted the Italians their first and killer third goals.

He also failed to redeem himself by converting a free header, following a corner, as Celtic’s best chance of the night fell to him on 63 minutes. A goal then would have given the home side both an equaliser and a lifeline back into the tie.

Neil Lennon will inevitably run the gauntlet too, as the wisdom of his decision to field Ambrose ‘straight off the plane’ for this season-defining game and also for his management of the injuries of his captain Scott Brown and talisman James Forrest is endlessly debated in the coming days.

The truth is though, that Celtic simply lack the squad depth to compete on all fronts currently - as 20 dropped SPL points and flops against the likes of St Mirren, Inverness, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone amply demonstrate.

When fit and fresh, the Celtic team that beat Barcelona in a memorable run to the knockout stages have no case to answer but the same cannot be said of Celtic’s supporting cast drawn from the less fashionable reaches of the transfer market and Celtic’s much vaunted youth system alike.

No doubt about it, Celtic have clearly benefitted from the stressless preparation for European ties they have enjoyed in a league shorn of their bitter rivals Rangers, but it is worth posing the question is the lack of quality in the back-up roles at Parkhead a product of corporate complacency or the justifiable recognition of a harsh economic and indeed cultural reality in Scotland?

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Next in the firing line after Ambrose, Lennon and Celtic’s Chief Exec Peter Lawell today is sure to be the Spanish referee Undiano Mallenco.

The gamesmanship Mallenco indulged from Juventus’ players specifically at set-pieces was nothing short of scandalous. A judicious red card or penalty award would not only have been wholly appropriate in the circumstances, it would also have nipped the likes of Lichtsteiner’s consistent infringements in the bud at a stroke and brought the game back under the referee’s control.

Objectively speaking it is hard to be overly critical of the Italian's. In the spirit of their renowned ‘professionalism’, they merely seized upon every break that fell their way from the comic cuts defending of Ambrose and Forster to the opportunities to punish Celtic with lightning quick transitions from defence to attack. In that context, thanks to a weak referee, they were allowed to behave as they chose without sanction whenever Celtic had a set-piece opportunity, and with it one of their best chances of scoring.

Offensively the Italians were equally clinical in their analysis and execution. Indeed, all three Juve goals were the result of the home side ceding possession high up the park with too many men ahead of the ball. Juventus were at their most dangerous whenever possession was turned over as Celtic pressed forward in pursuit of a goal.

At the elite level of world football, of which the Champions League knockout stages is the pinnacle, most games are decided on details rather than the broad-brush generalisations of possession stats, winning second balls and clearing your lines. Making the most use of the tools you have at your disposal, whatever they are, is undoubtedly the name of the game. Juventus did that with some aplomb. Celtic did not on a night when they failed to harness the Parkhead atmosphere and make their pressure and crossing opportunities count.

It is claimed that national football characteristics have been largely subsumed by the so-called Champions League style of Northern Europe’s big five leagues, but Antonio Conte’s Juventus suggest that it is still possible to compete internationally with a side that combines deeply ingrained national characteristics with the best that current coaching wisdom has to offer.

The grappling at set-pieces and mind games of Buffon who hyped up the overrated Forster ahead of the tie come straight from the classic Italian playbook. However, the fact that Juventus’ so-called Principino, Claudio Marchisio expressly courts comparison to the likes of Steven Gerrard over the Juve and Azurri legend Marco Tardelli underlines the fact that Italian football, within the long process of reinvention post-Calciopoli, has shrugged off its parochial image to embrace new, and foreign, ideas.

As such, Celtic fans can console themselves with the knowledge that they have just witnessed a modern masterclass, albeit a masterclass with a pronounced Italian accent. Such Champions League football paradoxically offers a blueprint to Celtic of how they might play themselves and also the standard required to get beyond this particular hurdle next time around.

The challenge to Celtic and indeed all of British football by extension, is to resolve the question of how to blend the best of what our local football culture has to offer into the creation of a modern, dynamic style of playing that makes a virtue of our strengths and mitigates against our weaknesses, just as Juventus have done.

This morning, the manner of their defeat will feel like the end of the road for dejected Celtic fans. However, as a marker of the standard they must meet to succeed; this bitter reversal may prove to be more of a beginning than an endpoint.