THE landscape has changed in the 18 years since Celtic last hosted Valencia, but the ambitions have not.
“For me, that is the whole thing about Celtic,” said Paul Lambert, the captain the night that the La Liga side put Martin O’Neill’s side out of the Uefa Cup in 2001. “For certain players the jersey is too heavy. For the likes of us Scottish players who knew the club, we would see John Clark and Bertie [Auld] and know what they were all about. As players there were reminders every day of where Celtic had been and what they had achieved. It is a lot to live up to. But it doesn’t take long for anyone coming into the club to learn about it.
“I always felt there was a certain level that was expected particularly when it came to the club competing in Europe. I don’t think that expectancy will ever go away among the support and that has to be a good thing. It sets a standard. Is that fair now when the game has moved on so much? I don’t know. But it’ll never go away. And if you are a player that pressure can only be of benefit to you. You want to play against the best.”
If Celtic can look wistfully at Martin O’Neill’s 2001 squad which had a Champions League winner in Lambert, a future Champions League winner in Henrik Larsson and a spine that was made up of players from the top level of the English Premier League, Valencia too will consider that they were riding the crest of their own glory years when they last stopped off in Glasgow.
After putting Celtic out of the tournament courtesy of a pulsating penalty shoot-out – “I would still say the atmosphere that night was the craziest I’d ever known in any game I played for Celtic,” reflected Lambert – Valencia went on to the quarter-finals of the tournament. In the immediate seasons before they had reached two consecutive Champions League finals, losing to Bayern Munich on penalties only a few months prior to facing Celtic. That season, under Rafael Benitez, they went on to break the Barcelona-Real Madrid dominance of Spanish title winners.
If Celtic have watched as the chasm has stretched ever wider between the big five leagues since then, Valencia’s struggles have been fairly acute. The club came perilously close to going bankrupt before being acquired by Peter Lim, a Singaporean billionaire, in 2014. But between 2015 and 2017, six managers came and went with last season the first indication of some kind of recovery. Yet they have not won any silverware since 2008 when they won La Copa del Rey, and there will be a familiar ring to the fact that they became known as a selling club as bigger teams came in to cherry pick their top talents with the club cashing in on the likes of David Silva, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba to balance the books.
Last term a fourth-place finish in La Liga led to a return to the Champions League for the first time in three years where there were some credible results – Valencia finished their campaign by inflicting defeat on Manchester United – but their current league position of eighth underlines the inconsistencies of their season. Twice they have drawn with Barca – just last weekend – but regardless of how they are now compared to how they were then, Celtic can be assured of a sterner challenge than any they have faced this season.
“This is when you need a little bit of arrogance,” said Lambert. “After I had been in Germany, I never went into a single game thinking that anyone was better than me. I always felt I would come out on top. And when I looked around our dressing room at that time it was full of players who thought like me. It’s what you need in this kind of environment.”
If that snapshot at the end of 2001 between these teams was of two squads nearing their peak, the trajectory of this Celtic team is less clear. A smattering of loan players have been introduced to the squad in the January transfer window and regardless of what the summer holds it seems there will be some kind of surgery required. Teeing up this game against Valencia came in bizarre circumstances after Celtic had looked to be heading out of Europe only for results elsewhere to gift them a route into the last 32. If it seemed like success in a Europa League group with the significant resources of Red Bull Salzburg and Red Bull Leipzig, Lambert maintained that the bar for success at Celtic will always be higher than qualification.
“I don’t think you should be celebrating getting out of a group or celebrating that you stayed in Europe beyond Christmas,” said Lambert. “For me, nothing in my career meant more than winning. I wanted to win things. I wanted to win games. I wanted to have something to show for all the work I put in. At Celtic the demands are for silverware and for winning. European football is an unforgiving environment but it is where you want to be judged.”
There might not be a Larsson or a Lambert in the current Celtic squad, but in Callum McGregor there may be a player who draws some similarities with the box-to-box running of Stiliyan Petrov. The Bulgarian played alongside Lambert in the middle of the park and while the former Celtic captain is reluctant to draw parallels, he has applauded the application of the Scotland internationalist who played his 50th game for Celtic this season on Wednesday night. He has, however, warned that there remains a perennial suspicion of players who remain north of the border.
“I always think it is very unfair to compare players from different eras,” said Lambert. “But there are a few things that strike me about the boy. One is the tremendous energy that he has got. He really puts a shift in. But, and it is unfair to him and to the club, the one accusation that he will hear is why isn’t he doing it elsewhere. At a higher level. He will hear it time and time again and it is based on ignorance because down in England people don’t necessarily understand what it takes to play 50 games for Celtic by February. The mental demands involved in that. So, I always hope that on big nights like Thursday that these boys seize their stage. You want them to go and show that they can do it when they are in pretty strong company.”
Lambert himself will feel a bit of heat this afternoon when he returns to Carrow Road, this time as Ipswich boss, in the Championship derby.
“I’ll be about as welcome as a fart in a lift but I’m looking forward to it,” he joked. “I was hated by half of Glasgow so I am sure that whatever flak the Norwich fans want to give me I’ll be big enough and ugly enough to take it.”
It is a week for strong minds.