Brendan Rodgers had urged his player to keep on dreaming of fresh glory on the continental stage but they were confronted by the cold, hard reality of the gulf in class which separates them from the clubs operating in Europe’s major leagues.
Goals from Russian international Denis Cheryshev and debutant Ruben Sobrino either side of half-time put Valencia firmly in control of this Europa League last 32 tie ahead of next Thursday’s return leg at their imposing Mestalla Stadium.
Uefa president Alexandar Ceferin was a VIP guest at Celtic Park last night and no doubt savoured the special atmosphere the stadium lends to European nights. But he was also reminded of the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots in Uefa’s club competitions, an issue the Slovenian has pledged to try and address.
No-one expected the almost unchallenged dominance Celtic had enjoyed in their seven domestic fixtures since the winter break to be repeated as they stepped back onto a more rarefied level. Nonetheless, it would have come as a rude shock to the home support to witness just how convincingly Valencia imposed themselves on the contest.
Save for a bright opening five minutes or so, when they harnessed the atmosphere and forced a couple of threatening moments, Celtic found themselves forced onto the back foot for lengthy spells.
Cheryshev’s goal three minutes before the interval gave Valencia an advantage they fully merited at the break. Operating with a no-frills 4-4-2 system, the visitors combined a ferocious work rate with excellent technical skills. It was simple but hugely effective.
Celtic, by contract, simply couldn’t find the cohesion and slickness they have displayed against lesser opposition in recent weeks. After their encouraging start, when Valencia’s Brazilian goalkeeper Neto made a comfortable save from Ryan Christie’s shot before a less assured stop to keep out a Callum McGregor effort, Rodgers’ men became increasingly ruffled and disjointed.
Scott Bain, making his European debut for Celtic, was called into action for the first time in the 18th minute. Carlos Soler floated in a cross from the right which was flicked on by Ruben Sobrino to the unmarked Daniel Wass. Bain appeared to see Wass’ header later but dived to his left to turn the ball behind.
A sense of nervousness looked to be creeping through the Celtic ranks, exemplified by captain Scott Brown’s unusually erratic passing. His heavy touch in an ill-advised exchange of passes with Bain put the goalkeeper in trouble and was almost punished by Cheryshev.
Play was regularly broken up by a series of fouls from both teams but it was Valencia who continued to look the more dangerous amid the disjointed nature of proceedings as Bain kept out another effort from Wass.
There was a brief moment of encouragement for Celtic in the 37th minute when Scott Sinclair found the space to play a through ball for Oliver Burke to run onto. It was the first opportunity the striker had been given to test Valencia with his pace but although he got in behind their defence, he was beaten to the ball by the advancing Neto.
The home fans raised optimistic appeals for a penalty a minute later when James Forrest went down on the edge of the box but he had been halted by a brilliantly timed tackle by Valencia skipper Daniel Parejo.
Rodgers would have been eager to get his players into the dressing room at half-time to try and press the reset button. But before he could do so, he had to watch Cheryshev put Valencia ahead. Celtic were left stretched at the back by Parejo’s piercing through ball which allowed Sobrino to race clear.
The striker had been played onside by Emilio Izaguirre and had all the time he needed to steady himself before squaring the ball to provide a simple close range tap-in for his partner Cheryshev.
The hugely influential Parejo had picked up an injury and failed to reappear for the second half, replaced by former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin. But Celtic’s hopes of tipping the balance of play in their favour suffered a major blow as Valencia doubled their lead in the 49th minute.
It was another goal constructed with pace and precision to pick the Celtic defence apart. Cheryshev was the provider this time, gliding into space on the left and whipping over a cross which left the unmarked Sobrino to slam the ball beyond the exposed and helpless Bain from six yards.
Rodgers made a double substitution in an attempt to reclaim some kind of foothold in the tie, replacing Sinclair and Christie with attacking duo Timothy Weah and Odsonne Edouard.
Celtic did gradually carry a greater threat, albeit Valencia were now largely content to sit in and protect their commanding advantage. Weah’s first sniff of goal saw him blaze a shot over from the edge of the penalty area, before the on-loan Paris Saint Germain forward was crowded out by the Valencia defence as they scrambled clear a dangerous low cross from Edouard.
There would be no solace of a goal back for Celtic, however, who now face a daunting assignment in Spain next week.