On Thursday night Celtic return to the European arena. Valencia are in Glasgow for the first leg of the last 32 Europa League encounter with the Scottish Champions.
There was jubilation among Celtic fans to make this stage in Europe for the second season running. Having exited the Champions League in qualification, the Europa League was a consolation for all Celtic fans.
Celtic beat Suduva in the final qualifier to reach the group phase of the Europa League. There they were paired with Salzburg, Leipzig and familiar foes, Rosenborg.
The group stage opened at home with a 1-0 win over the Norwegian champions, but that was followed up by two straight defeats away to Salzburg (3-1) and Leipzig (2-0). Having suffered back-to-back defeats there was a huge sense of disappointment, but with two home games and one away game remaining, there remained a slender chance that Celtic could still secure second spot.
Celtic beat Leipzig 2-1 in Glasgow and beat Rosenborg 0-1 in Trondheim. Going into the final group stage match, Celtic only had to avoid defeat against the Austrian Champions.
Salzburg had already won the group and there was a hope that they might not be as ruthless in Glasgow. As it turned out they were in command for most of the game and beat Celtic on what was beginning to look like a miserable end to an up and down campaign.
Meanwhile over in Germany, Leipzig were winning 1-0 and all was looking good for them. Then Tore Reginiussen nodded home an equaliser in the 86th minute for Rosenborg, throwing Celtic a lifeline.
Fans erupted in unison at Celtic Park and behind TV screens at home and in the pubs as the news filtered through. Both ties continued to the 96th (Leipzig) and 98th (Glasgow) minute as we held our breathes.
Even an Olivier Ntcham goal from a rebounded penalty in the dying moments did little to settle the nerves. A strange night of disappointment and joy it was.
A lot was made of Celtic’s progression at the last moment. When things like that happen so late on you can understand people teams being disappointed – we’ve been there.
This wasn’t about just one game though. The group stage is about six games and how well your team do over that period.
Celtic won three and lost three. Leipzig won two, drew one and lost three.
It doesn’t matter which end of the fixture list you got your results. Just who does better overall and that was Salzburg and Celtic.
So now Celtic face another tough opponent. Salzburg were by far the best side in our group and Valencia will be no less of a challenge.
The La Liga club finished third in their Champions League group behind Juventus and Manchester United and parachuted into this round as Celtic did last year. Our work is cut out for us.
If you face an opponent that spent over £100M last summer you know this will be no easy tie. Thankfully, Celtic have recruited in January, particularly in the attacking areas.
To say we were lightweight up front during our European campaign would be an understatement. The late exit by Moussa Dembele and rotating absences of Leigh Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard did little to help our chances.
Now Celtic have more options up front even though they had to leave one of their four new players out of the UEFA squad. The rules only permit three changes and with Vakoun Bayo behind the rest in terms of preparation it made sense to leave him out.
What Celtic must hope for is having as many players as possible fit and ready for these games against Valencia. The last time the Spaniards visited Celtic Park it was a home win.
The tie went to penalties as Valencia had won the first leg 1-0 in Spain. The La Liga club progressed as Celtic lost 5-4 on spot kicks in Glasgow.
There’s no doubt that since that match in December 2001 the gulf between both clubs has increased. It is the nature of the football climate, particularly where wealth is concerned.
The odds are stacked against Celtic. They have never progressed from the last 32 of this competition whilst Valencia have never been defeated.
For Celtic, it will be a case of third time lucky. As for Valencia, they will be looking to continue in the dance m same vein.
In realistic terms, European football is a battlefield that Celtic struggle on. The club have lost ground through a combination self-inflicted wounds and a rapidly growing financial gap between the elite and the rest of European football.
There is also a factor of blame on the whole of Scottish football. Poor investment, lack of competition and abysmal horizon scanning by the people who govern our game means that we have failed to keep up.
Scotland has been overtaken by nations who at one time were way behind us. We are now way behind those countries.
Brendan Rodgers’ hasn’t had the best of European campaigns with Celtic. He began his European journey in 2016 with Celtic by losing to Gibraltarian side Lincoln Red Imps 1-0 which would be overturned in the home leg.
Tough qualifiers against Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva followed, but Celtic made the Champions League. It was a tough group with Manchester City, Barcelona and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Brendan presided over Celtic’s biggest ever European defeat at the hands of Barcelona when they lost 7-0 in the Camp Nou. The same season he managed two very credible draws against Manchester City but Celtic fell flat on their face after failing to win a single match and only managing three draws over all.
His second attempt at Europe was much harder. After another three grueling rounds of qualifiers, Celtic were dropped into the group of death.
PSG, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht offered Celtic a tough challenge. Despite losing five of their six games Celtic qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League by winning one match.
It came down to a head-to-head with Anderlecht. Celtic won 0-3 in Belgium, Anderlecht won 0-1 in Scotland putting Celtic through despite losing the game on matchday six to the Belgian club.
It was progress in its leanest form as Celtic remained in Europe beyond Christmas. There they faced Zenit St Petersburg and got off to a good start with a 1-0 win in Glasgow.
However, it was a different story in Russia as Roberto Mancini’s side wiped the floor with Celtic. 0-3 in Russia was the end of Celtic’s European adventure.
Which brings us roundly to this season. What can Celtic do to change their fortunes this time?
Is it possible for Brendan to get a result against a team sitting 8th in La Liga? 8th in that league is better than first in many leagues including our own.
This is Brendan’s third season at Celtic. The club is still in Europe by whichever means.
Under Martin O’Neill in his third season at Celtic, the club went all the way to the UEFA Cup Final, the trophy’s former title. Is it at all likely that Brendan can overcome greater odds and do what Martin did in this third term?
I doubt many people would give us a chance and yet it often takes this amount of time to build something. Occasionally, such things can occur out of disappointment or misfortune.
Am I confident that Celtic can beat a team of Valencia’s stature? No, not unless we cut out mistakes and deploy the right team.
When I think back to 2003, I never thought Celtic would overcome Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista. None of those matches were foregone conclusions and yet Celtic had solid team.
What I do feel more confident about are our player options. Timo Weah, Oliver Burke and Jeremy Toljan have all come in and looked superb.
These positions are now looking stronger. We still have injuries to manage, but we have a better chance at these ties now than we did pre-recruitment.
What remains to be done are deploying the right tactics. Brendan has shot himself in the foot in Europe on several occasions, but he also knows how to change things.
This is a real test for the players and the coaching team. The challenge is huge and we must have realistic expectations but they have the full backing of the fans as ever.
All we can do is support them in the stands and behind the TV screens. The rest is up to Brendan and the Bhoys.