CALLUM McGregor’s ears may be ringing with his manager’s praise but the eyes remain wide open.
Celtic’s go-to man for the big European occasions, and Thursday night’s visit of Valencia promises to be that, won’t try to escape the fact that a top ten Spanish team good enough to finish just outside the Champions League places last season will be favourites against even an in-form Scottish side.
Can McGregor and his team get through? Yes, there is always a chance, but they will likely need to score a couple of goals and not concede – asking a lot – and then have the game over the lives in the intimidating Mestalla.
Brendan Rodgers loves this 25-year-old who does anything asked of him and this season, actually for the past 18 months, has hardly put a foot wrong.
McGregor along with Kieran Tierney have always looked comfortable when they step up has been taken and, in fairness, the Rodgers’s era has produced overall positive European results, with one or two humpings which can be glossed over for the moment.
Should they beat Valencia, then it’s the one thing this group of players have yet to do, to win a knock-out tie in Europe. A problem for Celtic is that Valencia are Spanish and that means they know how to get through such tests.
“If we got through it would represent progression for us season after season in Europe,” said McGregor. “You could probably say that this is a harder draw than last year’s but, then again, it’s good to test yourself.
“Having so many young Scottish players in the 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 watch the bigger La Liga games 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.”
That we will. Good Celtic teams have previously stumbled at the stage because, frankly, it is difficult for one of our clubs to take on even mid-sized European sides. And Valencia are not.
This is how Hamilton Accies feel when they go to Celtic Park. Sure, Celtic have a better chance but money talks in football; it rarely sing, dance or walk. For that matter.
Valencia are a big club, a rich club, and while their season has been uneven in terms of results, this is, of course, a step up from the Premiership.
McGregor admitted: “These European competitions are really tough, especially when you see the money that clubs are throwing about.
“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 you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time we managed to win a knock-out tie. We know it’s not going to be easy but we have to go into it in a positive frame of mind.
“Being at home first, I think, probably helps us slightly. There’s a feelgood factor about Celtic Park 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.
“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.”
Rodgers is getting some of his players back in time for this game, which comes in handy, and even more – Tierney – should be back for the return.
Celtic have won every game in 2019 and have yet to concede a goal, so they are hardly struggling for confidence.
“I think we’re going well, to be fair,” said 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. They’ve 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.”