Celtic press the pause button on their domestic hit parade and face a big European test in the round of 32.
Forget about seven wins on the spin. Forget about putting 21 goals past opponents without reply. Forget about everything you’ve seen since the calendars changed six weeks ago, because this fixture, and the away leg at the Mestalla next week, is different gravy altogether. Valencia represents a massive step up in class of opponent for the Hoops, and the goal will be to improve on last year’s dispiriting exit from Europe at the hands of Zenit St. Petersburg.
Although Celtic have a big mountain to climb if they want to progress to the round of 16, they cannot be too upset with their form coming in. Their roster is still beset with injuries, but important players are beginning to drift back into the team, which is vital with a congested fixture list on the horizon and a league still to be truly put to bed. Brendan Rodgers has a settled midfield, as well as a few different options to call on at the front and the back. Celtic Park has not been quite the European fortress of past seasons, but their brave defeat of Leipzig in the group stages proves that they have the capability and the fortitude to win at home as slight underdogs (on paper if not in the bookie’s).
Valencia are a bit of a mystery. They sit eighth in La Liga, and depending on who you listen to, are having either a good season or a poor one. Their most recent match, a turgid 0-0 home draw with Real Sociedad, represented a missed opportunity to leapfrog a couple of clubs and get nearer the European berths. Their manager, Marcelino, has been quoted in the press as believing that his team is “exhausted” (this is likely la mierda del toro gamesmanship), and they will be missing both first-choice forwards and an experienced defender. However, their quality cannot be denied, and tired or not, they are certainly one of the two or three best sides to rock up to Celtic Park this season.
The two clubs have a brief but interesting history together; Valencia was Celtic’s opponent in the Hoops’ first real foray into European competition, the 1962 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Celtic were well beaten in Spain before managing a 2-2 draw back in Glasgow. The next meeting, in 2001 in what was then the UEFA Cup competition, saw Celtic lose 1-0 in Valencia and then reverse the result in Glasgow thanks to a goal from Henrik Larsson, but ultimately falling 5-4 in a penalty shootout. However, that hard-fought tie was excellent preparation for Celtic’s legendary run to Seville the next season.
Stats & Facts
- Valencia have played Scottish teams 18 times in Europe over the years, with a record of W11, D3, L4.
- The last time Celtic advanced from a two-legged knockout tie in Europe was 1-0 over Barcelona in the 2004 UEFA Cup, which was eventually (and ironically!) won by Valencia
- Celtic have never advanced further than the round of 32 since the competition changed into the Europa League – this will be their sixth attempt to get beyond that stage.
- Valencia have never lost an EL two-legged round of 32 tie, and have not lost a goal in their last seven round of 32 fixtures.
Last 4 Meetings
Dec 2001 | Celtic 1, Valencia 0 | UEFA Cup
Nov 2001 | Valencia 1, Celtic 0 | UEFA Cup
Oct 1962 | Celtic 2, Valencia 2 | Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
Sep 1962 | Valencia 4, Celtic 2 | Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
Valencia have unquestionably had a more-than-decent campaign so far, both in La Liga as well as in Europe, where they made a good accounting of themselves in a group with Juventus and Manchester United – drawing at Old Trafford and then winning the home leg. However, although both them and Celtic have played three matches in February, Valencia’s came against Barcelona, Real Betis and Real Sociedad – first, seventh and ninth in the league respectively, and no mugs. So it will be an admittedly weary team that Marcelino puts out (“You boys look tired,” Jock Stein famously said to Billy Bremner before the 1970 European Cup semi-final) as well as a banged-up one.
Striker and top scorer (8 goals) Santi Mina will miss out on this leg at the very least with an ankle injury, and Argentine centre-back and new January signing Facundo Roncaglia is ineligible following a four-match ban he received in the semi-finals of the 2016/17 Europa League. A very bizarre situation saw Roncaglia, then playing for Celta Vigo, score late at Old Trafford and then get himself sent off a minute later after a fight with a Man United player. He was subsequently banned for four matches in Europe, a fact that no one cottoned onto until this week. (Unfortunately, another Legia Warsaw situation is not to be.)
Also left back in Spain for this match are striker Rodrigo and preferred left back Jose Luis Gaya. Rodrigo and Mina have been the preferred front two for Valencia for awhile now and it’ll be Kevin Gameiro coming in to deputise. Valencia often play a 4-4-2, but it’s possible their injury situation combined with tactics could see them go one up front. Either way, there will be a lot of squad rotation for them.
Nevertheless, the Spaniards still have plenty of talent to bring up to Glasgow, particularly at left wing – which makes Celtic’s choice of right back that much more important. World Cup sensation Denis Cheryshev will likely get the start there, with pacy Goncalo Guedes ready to come off the bench to run at tired defenders, much like Timothy Weah (and, formerly, Patrick Roberts) does for Celtic. The midfield of Wass, Parejo and Soler have played together a lot this season and are capable both in attack and defense.
At the back, Valencia really only have four healthy defenders, the centre-backs Diakhaby and Ezequiel Garay being more or less the usual first-choices. At right back will be former Celtic target Cristiano Piccini, who spurned the Hoops over the summer to sign a deal to remain on the Iberian peninsula instead. Left back Toni Lato, with only 8 appearances this season, is not the first choice at the position and James Forrest will be eyeing him up from jump street. In nets will likely be first-choice keeper Neto.
Over in the home dugout, Brendan Rodgers will have some more options to call on than he might have had during the month of January. Let’s go back to front. Between the sticks, Scott Bain has more than earned the right to start his first-ever European match. The last time he allowed a goal, it was August of 2018 and the Celtic support still thought Moussa Dembele was a hero, but it will be a much stiffer test for Bain this time around. He has certainly not had much to do in his seven-match run as the number-one keeper, but when called upon he has answered the bell every time.
Defence is a bit of a tricky call, with one major question Rodgers needs to answer. Firstly, Jeremy Toljan, a revelation since coming in on loan from Dortmund, will start at right back. The choices at centre back will be Dedryck Boyata (hopefully realizing that a good performance will raise his wages when he moves this summer) and one of Jozo Simunovic or Kristoffer Ajer. There are reasonable cases to be made for both Jozo and Ajer to start this one. In the end it will probably depend on fitness (Simunovic took ill at halftime Sunday but was pronounced fit by Rodgers Wednesday) and tactics (a stay-at-home Croat vs a marauding-into-the-midfield Norwegian).
However, the biggest X-factor here is the health of Kieran Tierney. The left back hasn’t played since 13 December with hip issues, and only returned to light training last week. He has reportedly been agitating with the gaffer for a start against Valencia, but Brendan Rodgers announced in his Wednesday press conference that KT will not be fit to play on Thursday night.
With that in mind, options at left back aren’t great. Emilio Izaguirre has been pronounced fit but has been inconsistent this season, and Jonny Hayes is sufficient cover domestically but belongs nowhere near this fixture. After the disaster at Ibrox in December, moving Callum McGregor to left back is not really an option either. Izaguirre due to his experience is likely the better option than Hayes, and the final option is perhaps moving Toljan to left back and (yikes) starting Mikael Lustig at right back. This is a bit like the old riddle about the farmer with the fox, hen and grain.
The midfield three is a much happier place. Scott Brown has had a real resurgence in performance following his contract extension, and will be needed for both his footballing and leadership nous Thursday night. He’ll be partnered by starman Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie, who has more than earned the opportunity.
Two of the front three positions will be filled by Scott Sinclair, who is coming off a hat trick at the weekend, and James Forrest, who’s scored in both of his last two matches. Who plays between them will be Rodgers’ last decision to make on Thursday morning. Oliver Burke has been excellent since coming in on loan from West Brom, and has provided both goals and assists while essentially being played out of position. His strength and pace have caused opponents no end of bother.
Odsonne Edouard, on the other hand, is a natural striker and better with his back to goal in hold-up play, and his performance in the home leg against Leipzig was one of the major factors in Celtic’s victory. In the end, for me, it will be down to fitness. Burke had to come off on Sunday on 67 minutes with what seemed like cramp. If Burke is fit, for me, he should start. That’s no slight on French Eddy, who will surely have a part to play in this match one way or the other, but Celtic have been playing so well with a front three of Sinclair-Burke-Forrest that it’s tough to convince me to change that up.
Key Points To Watch
- Fortress Parkhead: While Celtic haven’t been quite as imposing to European opponents at home in recent years, the match has sold out and the support will be right behind the Hoops. Celtic have been nothing short of incredible at home domestically this season (13 wins from 13, four goals allowed), and Valencia have a tough time on the road (3 wins from 11).
- Tactics: Valencia will surely have noticed that Celtic have been playing like they’ve been holding down the turbo button on the controller. Will they come to Glasgow and have a go, leaving them very vulnerable to a rapid counterattack? Or, missing their first-choice strikers and left-back, will they come and sit in and hope to nick an away goal on the counter themselves?
- The new bhoys: For Jeremy Toljan and Oliver Burke, it’ll be their first taste of European competition with Celtic. Timothy Weah, whom I suspect will turn out to be a big-game player who loves the spotlight, will very likely make an appearance off the bench. Will they rise to the occasion
Celtic 2, Valencia 1
The original match poster is by Frankie Mitchell (@madebyfrankie). You can buy a print of this and all of Frankie’s other illustrations and drawings from her online shop – her work is also available on t-shirts, stickers and many other products.