Just like they were during the group stage, Celtic are up against superior opposition in Juventus on Tuesday. However, they have the personnel to make things hard for the Italian champions, along with the confidence to execute their gameplan.
It's been five years since Celtic appeared in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and 11 since their knockout round triumph over Juventus, their opponents on Tuesday night. They're nowhere near as good as they were in the early part of the last decade, but then again, neither are the Old Lady.
Scottish football has fallen into a virtual state of disrepair in recent years, diminishing Celtic's ability to purchase, develop and retain top talent, but they've found the perfect combination of veterans, emerging youngsters and value signings to reestablish themselves as a relevant team on Europe's biggest stage.
Juventus have experienced a much more dramatic fall and a much quicker rise since the two sides last met. They're finally back where they belong, in the Champions League knockout stages and in a financially secure position, but they're not all the way back from Calciopoli. Given Serie A's current standing in European football compared to where it stood in 2006, they might not come all the way back during this decade. They have the players and manager in place to defeat anyone in the world, but Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved are not walking through the door. Juventus are the better of the two sides that will take the pitch on Tuesday night, but they no longer strike fear into their opponents simply based on their name.
Juventus are without Giorgio Cheillini, their outstanding left central defender, as well as left wingback Paolo De Ceglie. Kwadwo Asamoah, who was the starting left wingback ahead of De Ceglie for most of the season, has flown from South Africa to Scotland to meet up with his team following the Africa Cup of Nations. He's in the 22-man squad that Antonio Conte will pick from, but is not expected to start. If he does start, don't expect him to be the tireless, pitbull-like star he usually is for 90 minutes. Mirko Vucinic is also expected to miss out on a starting place through a nagging injury, though he could make the bench.
With Asamoah's status unknown and De Ceglie out, the left wingback spot is a massive question mark for Juventus. Any of Martin Caceres, Emanuele Giaccherini or Simone Padoin could occupy the spot. Padoin was not great in his last start, while Caceres is a better option at left central defense than Federico Peluso, so Giaccherini could get a rare start.
Celtic's James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre are both fighting for fitness, but are expected to be available. Giorgios Samaras, also battling injury, is not expected to make the 18-man squad. Central defender Efe Ambrose has returned to Scotland after winning the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria, but is unlikely to start. Mikael Lustig will probably shift from right back to right central defense, with Adam Matthews taking his spot at fullback.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Celtic (4-5-1): Fraser Forster; Emilio Izaguirre, Kelvin Wilson, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews; Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Ledley, Victor Wanyama, Scott Brown, Kris Commons; Gary Hooper
Juventus (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Martin Caceres, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli; Emanuele Giaccherini, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner; Alessandro Matri, Sebastian Giovinco
Scott Brown vs. Andrea Pirlo: Neil Lennon has no shortage of tenacious and active midfielders, but no one fits that description better than Scott Brown. What the Celtic captain lacks in panache and athleticism, he more than makes up for in work rate, fitness and tackling ability. Andrea Pirlo is still world-class technically and fit enough to play at this level, but there's no denying that he's lost a step. He can be marked out of a game more easily than the world's younger and more mobile deep-lying playmakers, and might struggle to dictate play for the Bianconeri if Brown spends the entire match in his face.
Celtic's right vs. Juve's left: No matter who starts on the left for Juventus, they're going to be worse than a fit De Ceglie or a fit Asamoah in just about every way. Martin Caceres is much less of a drop-off from Giorgio Chiellini than Giaccherini and Padoin are from the regular left wingbacks, but there's a reason he isn't first choice. Kris Commons and Adam Matthews aren't world beaters, but Matthews is competent and Commons has the quality to pull out an occasional trick. It wouldn't be surprising if Gary Hooper drifted to that side in an attempt to overload Juve's weaker flank.
Vincent Wanyama vs... uh, probably three guys: On the back of his spectacular Champions League performances -- especially his performances against Barcelona, Vincent Wanyama has picked up a reputation as one of the best young defensive midfielders in football. He's really up against a tough task on Tuesday, since Juventus are going to spend a lot of time in his area of the pitch. It's also where Juve's most important attacking players reside. Pirlo and their most advanced center forward are important, but they're also constants and will be dealt with by other players. Wanyama's going to have to make tough decisions about when to close down and when to hold his position as Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Sebastian Giovinco all run at him at different points. For Celtic to grab a draw or better on Tuesday, he will need to be spectacular.
Juventus haven't exactly looked stellar going forward in recent weeks, even though they're getting the job done, and they're missing a few key players. Celtic probably need a win to have a realistic chance to go through, but will be pleased with simply not letting in an away goal. Expect a tactically interesting, but ultimately uneventful 0-0 draw that satisfies both teams and sets up an interesting return leg in Turin.
For more on the Bianconeri, head over to Juventus blog Black, White and Read All Over.