For years we’ve analysed Celtic performances, wins and losses, in the rarefied Champions League environment with a recurring theme: more often than not at this level, mistakes, not great play, determines the outcome.
Last night’s top match, Juventus v Real Madrid, was no different. Real lost two goals, one from a penalty after a reckless challenge inside the box by Varane, another when the same player turned his back on the ball to watch Llorente, instead of attacking a 40 yard cross. The worst mistake came from Juventus. Instead of clearing the ball long, a defender put teammate Caceres under pressure, who could have put his laces through the ball and conceded possession 50 yards downfield, but chose to attempted to reach his keeper with a back-pass, which found Christiano Ronaldo instead.
The ‘schoolboy error’ metaphor is way overused in the game, but is never more apt than when watching the Champions League. Perhaps a bountiful source of individuals with rock-solid Superiority Complexes.
These are two of the most professional teams in the game. Their market knowledge, sports science, mental strength and tactical awareness will be as good as anyone in the game, but still this result was determined by a wayward and pointless back-pass, an equally pointless penalty box lunge and forgetting that crosses into the box take priority over watching your man.
Celtic know this well. We make fewer mistakes in Champions League games than we do in domestic football, while our recent wins benefited from opposition mistakes (penalty against Ajax, penalty against Spartak, Xavi kung-fu kick missing the ball, Spartak player red carded). Scott Brown’s off the ball indiscretion, which cost us a point, and Nir Biton’s ‘challenge’ are notable exceptions.
Ajax think they are the better team – which gives Celtic a great advantage. They think they can overwhelm us tonight, that they failed to make the most of their chances at Celtic Park and that we benefited from a couple of fortunate moments. This is a reasonable assessment based on last month’s game but know better as we’ve been watching re-runs of this script for years. Celtic’s win had nothing to do with fortune or missed chances, it came about as planned – deny the opposition space in dangerous areas, clear your lines and exploit their mistakes.
The Champions League is not about your best 89 minutes play, it’s about your worst minute, just ask a few sore-feeling footballers in Turin this morning. If Celtic avoid unenforced errors and wait patiently to exploit those a self-assured Ajax will make (no one does self-assured like Dutch footballers), they have nothing to fear. Keep 11 players on the field, don’t give away penalties (evidence elsewhere last night suggests unscrupulous players dive inside the box) or free kicks around the box, block shots from outside the box, and most of all…. clear your lines.
Do this, and our clever players will ensure that the result will take care of itself.
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