Celtic’s two excellent performances against Barcelona in the group stages were based around a narrow midfield and energetic movement in attack. Neil Lennon is likely to approach Juventus in the same way – a 4-4-1-1 shape with two compact banks of four to squeeze the space between the lines, an advanced midfielder stationed on Andrea Pirlo and a lone forward looking to find space in the channels. Efe Ambrose is expected to miss out having only recently returned from International duty so Mikael Lusting may play as a centre back with Adam Matthews coming in at full back. Further forward Scott Brown is likely to be used as the advanced midfielder tasked with covering Pirlo, with either Gary Hooper or Georgios Samaras leading the line.
Juventus are heavy favourites, even at Celtic Park, and will see no reason to adapt their 3-1-4-2 system. Antonio Conte has Paolo De Ceglie unavailable through injury meaning Martin Caceres will compete with Kwadwo Asamoah for the left wing back role. As per usual, Conte could select any combination of forwards, but given Mirko Vucinic’s goal and fine performance at the weekend he will probably feature, possibly with either Sebastian Giovinco or Alessandro Matri alongside. Despite being the away side Juventus will expect to dominate possession with Celtic posing a threat on the counter attack and at set pieces.
Scott Brown vs Andrea Pirlo
Juventus are far from being a one-man team, but nevertheless Pirlo is central to everything they do. Given space the Italian playmaker can dictate the tempo of the game and find attacking passes to his teammates further forward. Lennon will undoubtedly have a plan to counter Pirlo’s influence with Celtic’s advanced midfielder given almost a man marking role. For all of his technical quality Pirlo isn’t the most mobile, so whoever is tasked with marking him should also be capable of supporting attacks when Celtic have possession. Celtic are the home side and will need to come away with a result, so while stopping the opposition is important they will need to pose an attacking threat themselves.
Scott Brown appears the most obvious candidate for the role, possessing the tenacity to close Pirlo down and the attacking qualities to offer a threat in attack. Lennon may consider selecting him alongside Victor Wanyama in centre midfield given the energetic Juventus partnership of Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, but Brown appears more suited to the Pirlo role than other candidates. Celtic will need him to have a good game both in a defensive role and providing support to the lone forward to prevent him becoming isolated.
Pirlo will expect special attention and is adept at finding space by either dropping deeper or moving into midfield. With three Juventus defenders likely to be against one Celtic forward there is little reason for Pirlo to withdraw too far where he would only add to the surplus. Instead the playmaker may move forward into midfield in order to move his marker away from Celtic’s forward, thus blunting their attacking options. Should this happen Brown will have to decide between effectively covering Pirlo and being 20 yards away from the striker, or remaining in position and delegating defensive responsibility to a teammate.
Whenever a 4-4-2 variation meets a 3-5-2 variation there will always be interest in how the wing battles materialise.
In theory Celtic have a 2-1 advantage on both flanks so should view this as a means to attack Juventus. Unfortunately Celtic’s progression has largely been based on a narrow, compact midfield, so it would take some added ambition for the wide midfielders to position themselves more aggressively. With Brown likely to be defensively focused in an advanced midfield position, Lennon will need his wide midfielders to offer support to Celtic’s lone forward.
Celtic’s midfield remaining narrow may actually work in their favour. By removing Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons from the wings, Juventus’ wing backs’ direct opponent becomes Celtic’s full backs, encouraging them forward and leaving more space in behind. Juventus’ forwards aren’t of the highest quality but do have clever movement, and will look to drop deep to pull the centre backs out of position, so having four very central midfielders would allow the centre backs to stay in place without Celtic becoming outnumbered in the middle. This would then allow Mulgrew and Commons to make quick runs into advanced wide positions when Celtic have possession.
What Lennon will need to avoid is Celtic’s wide midfielders getting pinned back by Juventus’ wing backs, which aside from stunting their attacking threat also prevents full backs Emilio Izaguirre and Adam Matthews having an active part in the game. Conte will want his wing backs to maintain a degree of conservatism away from home, and so if Celtic can push them back they will take away a large part of the Juventus’ attacking threat.
Juventus long range shooting
Celtic were able to neutralise Barcelona by defending very deep and prevent them playing balls behind their defence, whilst allowing them time on the ball in midfield. Against players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets this can be done safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to take shots from distance, married to the concept of tika taka and patient passing. Juventus’ midfield trio of Marchisio, Vidal and Pirlo are all capable and willing to shoot from distance, so Frazer Forster will need to be aware of the consequences of giving players too much space 30 yards from goal.
Home advantage has become an interesting factor in European knock-out games. In theory as the home side, Celtic should be the team looking to impose themselves on the game and grabbing a result. However, the power of the away goals rule makes a 0-0 an attractive proposition, with the hope of a score draw away from home taking a team through. This may well be an option Lennon considers. 44% of Celtic’s goals in this year’s Champions League have come from set pieces, but they will probably find Italian opposition far more organised than any team they have played so far. Therefore with scoring chances likely to be limited, keeping a clean sheet at home may be Lennon’s priority. Juventus will be respectful away from home, but Conte will still expect a result and the away side are likely to see most of the ball.