This week we saw the Champions League resume after its winter break with some mouth-watering fixtures as the competition came down to the last 16 teams.
On Tuesday, Celtic entertained Italian league leaders Juventus at Parkhead. Celtic have been fantastic in this year’s competition and I’m sure exceeded even their own expectations in qualifying for this stage from a very tough group. What has been especially impressive is the way in which, coming from the SPL, they have risen to the really demanding challenge of taking on some of the best teams in La Liga and Serie A.
However, the game this week couldn’t have started any worse for them when they conceded a careless goal within three minutes. That said, I thought they reacted very well to going a goal down and, with a vocal crowd behind them, they really took the game to the Italians.
It was refreshing to see them being positive and closing down high up the pitch as, so often on occasions like this, the inferior team tends to err on the side of caution and drop deep, which invariably plays into the opposition’s hands — especially when you have to contend with somebody like Pirlo, who can put the ball on a sixpence.
Much has been made of the behaviour of Juventus’ Stephan Lichsteiner while defending corner kicks. Like many, I was watching in disbelief as he manhandled Gary Hooper on numerous occasions in full view of the referee. I know the Italian game is different to ours — and I’ve had personal experience of their man-marking from set pieces — but what he was doing was utterly ridiculous. The referee then had the audacity to book both him and Hooper. I thought Gary Lineker summed up the situation very well when he said: “Lichtsteiner is an unbelievably irritating human being”.
The final 0-3 scoreline didn’t truly reflect the game as a whole but the Italians were clinical in the chances they had or, should I say, were given. They say a week is a long time in football but in Efe Ambrose’s case he must have gone through all the emotions in less than 48 hours. On Sunday, he experienced the elation of winning the Africa Cup of Nations with his country Nigeria. But he obviously didn’t get much time to celebrate as, remarkably, he was named in the starting line-up against Juventus despite having only landed back in Glasgow on the morning of the game.
We all know hindsight is a wonderful thing but surely the sensible decision would have been to leave him out of this fixture. I can understand that the player himself would have been desperate to play, and I’m sure he was feeling very confident after his exploits with the national team but, for me, the decision should have been taken out of his hands for the benefit of everybody concerned, especially the player himself. Ironically, apart from his few individual errors and lapses in concentration, I actually thought he had a decent game — but obviously that won’t be remembered.
What I didn’t like to see in the aftermath was one of his team-mates come out and criticise him in public, with Kris Commons saying he shouldn’t have played and that it had cost the team. You win and lose as a team and there should never be any individual criticism in public. If Commons had something to say, then it should have stayed within the walls of the dressing room. It will be interesting to see Ambrose’s reaction to these comments as I know I certainly wouldn’t be happy if one of my team-mates did that to me.
And so to Wednesday evening in Madrid for what was probably the most eagerly anticipated tie of the round, when Real Madrid hosted Manchester United. Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have had numerous battles over the years so this one was always going to be intriguing, especially when you include the Cristiano Ronaldo factor.
Man United are sitting 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League, but I think that’s more of a reflection of the quality of the competition this season rather than how good United have been. When you look at how far Real Madrid are behind Barcelona in La Liga then you have to suspect that the Champions League is their priority.
It was built up as a game in which United basically had to keep Ronaldo as quiet as they could, but that is a lot easier said than done. As well as which, it would have been silly to think of Madrid as a one-man team when you consider the other quality players they possess, such as Ozil, Di Maria and Alonso.
I was surprised with United’s team selection which, in effect, saw them starting with three strikers in Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck. In my opinion, Rooney is probably the most unselfish player around. Last season he revelled in the number nine role, playing high up the pitch and leading the line very well — not to mention scoring at will. When Van Persie signed in the summer there was much talk about where Rooney would play but, to his credit, in whatever position he has been chosen he just gets on with it. The unselfish running, tracking back and doubling up he did on Wednesday evening shows how important it is to him for his team to do well and be successful, even if that means he has to sacrifice his own game.
I was positive Valencia would start on the right hand side of midfield to help double-up on Ronaldo but the manager thought differently and, in the end, he was vindicated. Phil Jones gave a very mature and energetic performance in the middle of the park alongside Michael Carrick. He was constantly closing down space for the mercurial Ozil and giving Rafael a helping hand too when the full back was faced with the unenviable task of containing Ronaldo. Overall, 1-1 was probably a fair result and it leaves the tie very nicely poised for the return leg at Old Trafford. Fergie and Jose obviously have great respect for each other and have become friends over the years but, I must say, I miss the niggle that they once had. I just wonder what it would take for Mr Mourinho to repeat his extravagant celebrations again at Old Trafford as I, for one, would love to see that.
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