As Juventus’ defenders jostled and harassed at one end of the pitch on Tuesday night, Alessandro Matri was busy confirming his recent purple patch. The Juventus striker netted the first at Celtic Park when he capitalised on an Efe Ambrose error and was instrumental in the Bianconeri’s second, superbly finding Claudio Marchisio. Juve all but ensured their passage to the last eight when Mirko Vucinic coolly sealed the 3-0 result following another Ambrose blunder.
In between Matri’s early opener and the late brace was a steely performance. Gianluigi Buffon and his cohorts were tested, but rarely troubled. For all Celtic’s endeavour, they created only one heart-stopping moment. Amid it all, Juve kept their fourth consecutive Champions League clean sheet and became the first Italian club to score 700 goals in European competitions.
Questions have surrounded Juve’s attacking ranks this term and Matri has bore the brunt of criticism. Early season performances suggested a player lacking confidence, let down by his usually trusty finishing ability. Even Nicklas Bendtner got a look-in ahead of the former Cagliari man. He was a shadow of the player who rippled the net with consistency in the 12 months following the move from Sardinia.
“I’m not satisfied with being a reserve, I’m working to play in the starting XI. Pecking orders have to be respected, but you can try and change them,” noted Matri two weeks ago. Like a boxer on the ropes he has fought back to give Antonio Conte a welcome selection headache. Starting with the late December win over Cagliari, Matri has looked like his old self.
That night at the Stadio Ennio Tardini he filled Juventus with Christmas joy by scoring a crucial late brace after entering the pitch as a substitute in the come-from-behind victory over his former club. Since the turn of the year Mitra Matri has netted three Serie A goals in four matches – including a sumptuous volley at Chievo. Saturday’s strike against Fiorentina was reminiscent of the Matri Juve forked out €18million for in January 2011. From fourth or fifth choice, Matri is now a regular in the Bianconeri XI.
This at a time when his future was placed under the microscope. Nicolas Anelka was signed for the present and Fernando Llorente for the future. Yet that only served to spur the Lombardy native on. Matri brushed off any fears his future was away from Turin. “I never felt as if my future was in the balance last month. Neither the club or my agent told me anything.”
His goal at the weekend confirmed a starting spot alongside Vucinic at Celtic Park. Just three minutes in Matri would reward that decision. He benefitted from Ambrose’s indecision to race on to Federico Peluso’s long pass and poke home. The ball crossed the line, but only just, to give Matri his first Champions League goal. All he had was a sniff. All he needed was a sniff. It was the goal of a confident player.
That was one half of the equation. The other was the hardworking Matri, one who chased, battled and led the forward line with distinction. He was a willing runner and brought others into the game. None more so than Marchisio – another excellent performer - who scored the second goal after Matri’s deft flick.
“Matri contributed to a fine goal, as it came from a situation we had practiced many times in training,” said Conte. “I had to work very hard before being worthy of Juventus. Alessandro is working very hard now and improving in terms of his knockdowns and assists.” Former Juve players and European Cup winners Paolo Rossi and Alessio Tacchinardi were also quick to praise the striker.
Juve are poised to qualify for the quarter-finals thanks to their away victory, even if the players stressed the tie is not over. However, the Old Lady will go into the return fixture with a greater degree of comfort. Their triumph was built on a rock solid foundation and taken to the next level by the type of Matri performance fans have been crying out for. He did his standing in the squad no harm.