Setting new standards for Celtic has become almost a matter of course for Brendan Rodgers and his players at domestic level over the past two-and-a-half seasons.
Callum McGregor, one of the most influential mainstays of the squad currently pursuing a remarkable ‘triple treble’ of Scottish silverware, believes they are also ready to put another record straight in Europe.
It is now 15 years since Celtic last won a knockout tie in the latter stages of a European competition, when they beat Barcelona 1-0 on aggregate in the fourth round of the 2003-04 Uefa Cup under Martin O’Neill.
They have progressed beyond the group phase another five times since then, only to fall at the first hurdle in the knockout stage every time – to AC Milan and Barcelona under Gordon Strachan in 2007 and 2008, to Juventus under Neil Lennon in 2013, to Inter Milan under Ronny Deila in 2015 and most recently to Zenit St Petersburg last season under Rodgers. Celtic face another daunting challenge as they bid to halt that trend, facing highly regarded Spanish side Valencia in the last 32 of the Europa League. Ahead of the first leg at Parkhead on Thursday night – the return fixture is at the Mestalla Stadium seven days later – McGregor is optimistic he and his team-mates can rise to the occasion.
“These European competitions are really tough for Celtic, especially when you see the money that other clubs are throwing about,” said the 25-year-old midfielder.
“Then you look at the draw for this round and see the quality of the teams who are in it – the standard is getting higher all the time and we are aware you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time we managed to win a knock-out tie. So we know it’s not going to be easy but we have to go into it in a positive frame of mind. It would represent progression for us, season after season in Europe, if we could win this tie and make it to the last 16. You could probably say that this is a harder draw than last year when we played Zenit at this stage of the Europa League but, then again, it’s good to test yourself.
“Having so many young Scottish players in our side, coming up against such strong opposition can only be a good thing for us. You want to test yourself against the best and, by doing that, you should come out the other side as a better footballer.
“I think being at home in the first leg probably helps us slightly. There’s a feel-good factor about Celtic Park right now and everybody will be coming to this big European night urging us on to get a result, similar to last season against Zenit when we got the win at home in the first leg.
“Everyone is expecting the best from us, anticipating that we’ll turn in a good performance. I reckon that if we can give a good account of ourselves on Thursday, people will be happy with that.”
McGregor points to Celtic’s impressive performance in their 2-1 home win over RB Leipzig in the group stage this season as evidence of their ability to raise their game to the standards necessary to compete with and overcome opponents from Europe’s major leagues. He is also encouraged by how Celtic have coped with a lengthy injury list during their recent run of form which has seen them rack up seven straight victories and clean sheets in domestic matches since the turn of the year.
“We’re going well, to be fair,” added McGregor. “We’ve been excellent since we returned from the winter break, winning every game and not conceding a goal.
“Everything is going well and the new boys who have come in have made a contribution. There are a lot of players who’d be considered automatic starters who can’t be in the team at the moment but, injuries apart, that’s a tribute to the strength of our squad and the guys who’ve come in, who’ve been desperate to do well – they’ve maintained our standards.
“You know that Spanish clubs will play football and they’ll always really test you. Valencia have also come into a good bit of form recently but we’ve got to fancy our chances at Celtic Park. Our mindset has to be that we play without fear and just go out there and see what we can do.
“I always watch the bigger games in La Liga involving Barcelona and Real Madrid but you realise that foreign opponents will be at a high level technically so we pretty much know what we’ll be coming up against.
“That will help us, too, in that we’re moving up in class and the speed of thought has to improve and you also need to move the ball quicker. Being in that type of environment makes you a better player.
“I think that the night we beat RB Leipzig provided the blueprint for us and, if we can turn in a similar display against Valencia, we should be all right. It’s about us being upbeat and wanting to push ourselves – then we’ll see what happens.”