Celtic in the last 16 of the Champions League was something far beyond what I had hoped to see this season. With two qualifying rounds to negotiate in July and August, my only real wish was to see Celtic get back into the group stages — something we had not managed in four years. But when we did just that, the draw paired us with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
The thought then was it could have been better but it could have been worse. Better because we were facing teams we had faced in the Champions League already—- indeed all three were met at some point in the 2007/08 season. Worse because the draw offered us a chance to beat the odds and not finish bottom of the group as fourth pot teams are expected to do. My thoughts immediately after that draw were of third place being very achievable and second place not being beyond the realms of possibility if we played to our best. We did, and it wasn't.
There are similar feelings now with the last 16 draw. In Juventus, we have drawn a team we all remember playing in our very first foray into the Champions League group stages back in 2001, and yet there is a feeling that maybe Celtic have a chance to advance further in the competition. Of course, that feeling is a very comparative one. As group runners up we were always going go be paired with a group winner. Of the seven teams we could have faced, English leaders Manchester United, German leaders Borussia Dortmund and Champions League runners-up Bayern Munich were the three I heard most as the teams to avoid. Conversely, Paris Saint-Germain, Schalke 04 and Malaga were the names most Celtic fans were picking out of the list. Curiously Juventus never featured in the preferred lists to play or avoid.
My gut feeling as to why that is the case is that the Italian league has dropped off the radar in recent years when compared with other leagues. In Scotland we are hammered with the English Premier League and we know exactly what we could get from anyone there. The German league is one where we have looked on in envy as ticket prices have been slashed and yet the teams are performing remarkably well and playing entertaining and successful football. ESPN UK may show both it and the Italian league, but it's the German one that seems to get discussed more.
I must admit, I am more of a Spanish football fan than an Italian football fan. Indeed, Malaga were never on my list of preferred opponents unlike many! Despite growing up watching Italian football on Channel 4 in the 1990s, the defensive style just never captured my imagination. Nevertheless, I watched enough to know it was of the highest quality and the European trophy haul in that era confirms it's place at the top back then.
It's changed days now of course. Where the 1990s Italian football was very much a case of who could defend better, Italian football in 2013 doesn't quite seem the same. My perception of Italian football could be very wrong of course, but while I may not watch games from Italy as often as others it hasn't passed me by either. Certainly teams that go unbeaten throughout an entire league season are few and far between, so when they do occur everyone knows about it. Admittedly, the one and only time I saw Juventus play last season they managed to lose — that being the Coppa Italia final! Given my audience here I'll apologise for being such a jinx and ruining the chance of a double!
Juventus may not be unbeaten this season as they were last, but that's not to say they aren't still an incredibly formidable opponent for Celtic to face. Three wins and three draws in Europe this season — in a group that included defending European champions Chelsea and another familiar opponent to us in Shakhtar Donetsk - and only two domestic defeats is a record of which Celtic can only dream. But one of those defeats came at home to Inter Milan, and that itself gives me some cause for hope.
Pre-season friendlies may not be something into which you can read too much, but when I watched Inter Milan visit Celtic Park back in July I thought they were just starting their build up to the new season, such was the difference between the way Celtic played and the way Inter played. It wasn't until days after the match that I realised Inter were due to play a qualifier in the Europa League the following week. If that performance was any indication as to how Celtic can do against Italian opposition then we can certainly put on a show - at least at home.
Of course the real reason Celtic fans, myself included, believe they can take on anyone are the performances against Barcelona. A team widely regarded as one of the best that Europe has to offer, and often debated as to their place in all of football history, needed a 94th minute winner at home and lost at Celtic Park. Not that losing at Celtic Park is anything new of course. Of all the teams who have visited in the Champions League proper, only Barcelona themselves have ever won there. While some have come to Glasgow and earned a draw, the list of defeated teams is impressive, and of course include Juventus themselves.
Frustratingly, I missed the 4-3 home victory in 2001 but even watching in a pub it was a thrilling match. Still, to this day it's one of the games I'm gutted I missed. Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet are two players I enjoyed watching over the years and I would have loved to have seen them play in person. Both scored that night of course, although sadly for them so did Joos Valgaeren, Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton! But as good as that match was, it's the first game between the two sides that still leaves a sour taste.
Among many at Hail Hail Media where I write and podcast is singer/songwriter Joe McKenna who wrote a Celtic song called Worldwide Tim Parade. Within the chorus of that song is the line "I watched injustice fall upon you in Turin". That line refers to an incident three minutes from full time in that September 2001 game. Having fought their way back from 2-0 down, Celtic — in their very first group stage match — found themselves level and heading for a point against the ten men of Juventus. Unfortunately for us, Nicola Amoruso came off the bench and within seconds had won the home side a penalty which he himself converted to win the game 3-2.
There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Amoruso dived that night to win the penalty. Even the man himself admitted it shouldn't have been a penalty weeks later. But that injustice has stuck with Celtic in the eleven years that have followed. Indeed, some feel that Celtic's away game jinx started with that incident in Turin. It took Celtic until the Camp Nou three years later to get an away point in the Champions League group stages. It took until the Champions League campaign this season for Celtic to register an away win in the competition. Having now finally shaken off that jinx in Moscow, it seems only fitting that Celtic have a chance to return to the city where it all started.
Curiously though, while this will be Celtic's third visit to Turin it will also be their third different stadium in which to face Juventus. The new Juventus Stadium is a big improvement from 2001's Stadio delle Alpi but prior to that Celtic first faced Juventus in September 1981 in the Stadio Comunale Vittorio Pozzo. I'm not sure there will be many that will have made the journey to all three by the time this latest tie is played out, but no doubt those who do make the journey this time - of which I'm sure there will be plenty — will be treated to a stadium worthy of Italy's "Grand Old Lady".
Before that journey comes though, Celtic's aim will be clear. To have any real chance of progressing a good result from the home leg will be required. Celtic have scored in all five away games in Europe this season - and indeed Georgios Samaras has been one the scoresheet in all of them. With that statistic in mind, many are looking to a clean sheet from the first leg as being possibly even more vital than actually winning the home tie. Perhaps I am more "old-school" though and believe that winning the home leg is just as important. Either way, it is still too early to tell the respective strengths of the two teams, especially with a January transfer window between then and now.
Perhaps what worries me most about this time is our record in Italy. Seven defeats, two draws, no wins. Having said that, no Italian team has won in Glasgow either. Udinese's draw last season added to Milan's three draws and Inter's one. Juventus lost on both occasions, but of course progressed from the tie in 1981 and topped the Champions League group in 2001. Indeed, we have never progressed against an Italian team - save from a certain one-off match in Lisbon in 1967.
The odds are against Celtic and Juventus will be favourites to progress. It is of course difficult to argue with that. But there are upsets in football all the time, and if anything Celtic have a record of rising to the occasion. Having beaten the odds to get this far already, there is always a chance that Celtic can do so once again. But it will take another massive effort to do it. All we can hope is that it's not the foregone conclusion a certain UEFA president and former Juventus star thinks it is!