Brendan Rodgers rates Valencia as fourth biggest club in Spain
Brendan Rodgers accepts that his side could hardly have been handed a more difficult opponent in the Europa League last-32 stage than a club that have twice been semi-finalists in the competition since 2012. If any more evidence of that fact was required, it was supplied by Valencia taking a two-goal lead at the Nou Camp only last weekend, before a Lionel Messi double allowed Barcelona to scrape a draw.
A tied scoreline is the favourite result of Marcelino’s side, who produced one in drawing 2-2 with Real Betis in the Copa del Rey in midweek. And if you want to spin that Celtic could have an outside chance of causing an upset against the Mestalla side, it could be highlighted that Valencia have won only six of their 22 games in La Liga this season. Conversely, if you want to talk down those prospects, with only four defeats it could be pointed out that only Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, occupying first and third places, have lost fewer. For further comparison, Real Madrid, in second and six places above a Valencia that have tip-toed their way up the table following torturous early-season struggles, have suffered six defeats.
Rodgers believes that is the company Valencia must be bracketed with – the Mestalla side returning to the Champions League group stage for the first time in three years this season courtesy of a fourth-place finish in La Liga last year.
“They’re the fourth biggest club in Spain behind Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid,” the Celtic manager said. “They may have had troubles in recent years but look at their results this season. And though a lot have been draws, they’ve performed well. Look at that result against Barcelona. It’s a top side with great history. We know the challenge we have. But we’ll look forward to the first leg on Thursday and with the atmosphere we’ll hope to get a good start.”
Coach Marcelino has been considered a restorative figure at the club. He has certainly been an unusual one in holding on to his post for the past 19 months. Not since a young Unai Emery burnished his team-building reputation with a four-year stint there from 2008 has any coach enjoyed such longevity. There have been ten of them in seven years.
Near bankruptcy – owing to debts of €400 million – and constant turmoil on and off the field followed Emery’s departure from what can be considered a grandee Spanish club courtesy of their six league titles, seven domestic cup successes and four European trophies in the form of a Uefa Cup, a Cup-Winners’ Cup and two Fairs Cup triumphs.
Champions League finalists twice in succession at the turn of the millennium, their fourth-place finish in La Liga last season was considered the club being returned to something like the heavyweight achievers of old. They may be some way off that status, but their performances against Manchester United in the Champions League group stage over the autumn showed their capabilities, with a scoreless draw at Old Trafford being followed by a 2-1 home victory in the Mestalla. That wasn’t enough to prevent them losing out to United, and Juventus, in their bid to progress to the knock-out stages of the blue riband tournament. Not since 2012-13 have they appeared at that stage – in common with Celtic, of course.
Ultimately, Rodgers’ men are long-odds to upset a team from one of the big five leagues again, after doing so by edging out RB Leipzig in Celtic’s Europa League group campaign.
With a squad that was fully fit and firing, there might have been more optimism over their prospects. For a tie that has essentially crept up on the club and not been given the fanfare that would normally be expected, that is patently not the case.
History weighs against Celtic. They have not won a post-group stage knockout tie in Europe since they eliminated Barcelona from the last 16 of the UEFA Cup in 2003-4. They fell at the next hurdle to another Spanish side, Villarreal, that season, a year after Celtic had reached the final of the same competition.
The Scottish Cup last-16 tie against St Johnstone this afternoon can be considered a game that the club’s followers would prioritise above the visit by Valencia. It may also be an opportunity for Rodgers to give game time to Odsonne Edouard and Olivier Ntcham who are returning from injury, with Kieran Tierney also back in training. This trio, Dedryck Boyata (who made his injury comeback in midweek) and new loan arrival Jeremy Toljan have played little football in recent months. Other January loan signings Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah may have energised the Celtic set-up, but they are still in their early days of adapting to their roles.
Yet, Rodgers would contend that Celtic are in a better place to tackle this Europa League assignment than just after they earned it despite a sobering home loss to Salzburg in early December.
“It was a great achievement in the group we were in to get through,” said Rodgers. “We can draw a line under that. Now we come in fresh and ready to go in February. That’s the way we have always looked at it. We had a job to do up until Christmas then we come back later. There’s a perception [that it might be hard to pick up again]. You can look at it that way and talk and write about that. But you can look at it differently in that it’s a great opportunity, you are fresher. There’s the buzz again, it’s a knockout and you have to embrace the challenge.
“There will still be some that won’t be available [but] we don’t want to talk about injuries. There’s an opportunity for others to come in. They get a chance and those who have come in have kept the flow going. That’s what we’re about. You miss good players, of course you do, especially when you come up against top opponents. But we’ll have a team that’s very competitive and we’re excited about that.”