NEIL LENNON vented his frustration at the match officials after admitting that Celtic require a 'miracle' to stay in the Champions League after a heartbreaking defeat to Juventus.
The Hoops boss did acknowledge that his men were responsible for individual errors that led to the Juve goals and conceded that, in hindsight, he could be asked questions about the decision to select centre-half Efe Ambrose just 48 hours after his Africa Cup of Nations success.
However, it was the performance of the referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco which dominated the Armagh man's post-mortem. He focused on the the manner in which the Spaniard enforced corner kicks, with Lennon believing that Juve were repeatedly holding his players back. A first-half row between Gary Hooper and Stephan Lichtsteiner highlighted the issue and fans' anger grew in tandem with the Celtic bench as Juve continued to get the benefit of the doubt.
"It's not rugby we're playing, it's soccer," said Lennon. "They were fouled at every opportunity. Time and time again. Every time we went to get a marker, we were hauled back. Are the rules different in Spain and Italy? On that evidence, they must be.
"I pointed it out to the referee at half-time in the tunnel area and he just waved me away. I made it clear to the players that they were flag it up with the referee.
"There is a way to defend and we do it as fairly as possible. I'd like to see the interpretation of the rules as they are blatantly different to what we've seen tonight," added the 41-year-old, who asked what the officials behind the goal brought to the equation.
Juve coach Antonio Conte, who was generous in his praise of the Celtic performance and the atmosphere, refused to get drawn into the discussion. "Quite often in Italy we have the habit of overcriticising, so we'll leave that to the Celtic manager," he said.
Lennon effectively conceded that the tie was over. "We have to be competitive and it's a daunting prospect going to Turin at any stage," he said. "With a 3-0 deficit it's going to be insurmountable almost. It's going to be a huge ask. We need a miracle.
"It's the harsh reality of Champions League football and some of my young players will learn a huge lesson. I thought for 70-odd minutes, until the second goal, we were by far the better side – but you can't give away goals like we gave away, sloppy.
"The tie was alive at 1-0 but if we had equalised when Efe had the chance, it could have galvanised us, but it wasn't to be.
"I can't really criticise the team because we were short of the final quality to give us the goal. The build-up play was excellent, and Andrea Pirlo and (Arturo) Vidal had no impact on the game for long periods."
Ambrose was a shock inclusion in the side but Lennon did not put his early mistake that gifted Alessandro Matri the opener down to the exertions of his long journey from South Africa. However, he said that the Nigerian did look leggy in the dying minutes as Juve killed the round-of-16 tie off with the goals from Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic.
"The second goal burst our bubble," he sighed. "When you make defensive mistakes at this level you get punished, and that was the case tonight."
Conte described the noise generated by the capacity crowd as like 'two extra players' for the hosts. Three extra goals ensured that he went home with the broadest smile.