20 minutes into last night’s Europa League game against Valencia, Celtic looked competent and in control, if not dangerous. We had the majority of the ball (as we did for the rest of the game), enjoyed possession inside the Valencia box and had shots on target.
Valencia were probably happy to resist us for this opening period, but from that point onwards, they inhibited Celtic’s midfield from enjoying as much freedom. Neither side made a chance worthy of the name until the opening goal, three minutes before the break. Valencia’s second, four minutes after the interval, meant the tie was decided during a very short period of play.
While we opened well we failed to involve Oliver Burke throughout. The only possession he got was to his feet with his back to goal, the ball invariably bouncing away from him. Burke is a player who needs service into the channels – something that happened only once before the goals arrived.
For years I have shared fears here of Celtic playing so high up field against European opposition. Tactics like this result in positives like “What a torrid opening four minutes we gave Juventus” before a counter-attack settles things.
I was actually encourage when Valencia started to compete more effectively midway through the first half, as our best game plan was to counter. Keep it tight and play on the break, at this level, anything else is a ticket out of the tournament. And that’s not just for Celtic, these are the tactics Valencia deployed.
The opening goal came through a poor attempt to play offside. Jozo Simunovic stepped up as Parejo made the forward pass, forcing Sobrino into what should have been an offside position, but Emilio Izaguirre was four paces back, ostensibly, but not actually, covering Cheryshev. Emilio did no better at the second goal, allowing Sobrino freedom of the box. Insert the hoary old schoolboy analogy here.
There were things I liked, specifically, playing the ball out from the back. With central defenders wide, full backs high and central mids deep, Scott Bain was able to find a player in space, 40 yards from goal, and start an attack. This play is still in its infancy at Celtic, but we need to stick with it.
The impact of Odsonne Eduard, who played the last 30 minutes, was immediate. It took defenders (plural) to close him down. We also saw a new aspect to Timothy Weah, who came on at the same time as Edouard as a creative mid. It was a curious performance from Timothy. He was everywhere for five minutes, then stuck to position (presumably on instructions) and dropped out of things.
Central mid did not work. Immediately after a defeat, there is a rabid tendency to find a scapegoat, which is seldom productive, but we need to ask the question why central mid didn’t work, and get it right for the qualifiers. As for the defence, only Jozo will be around for the qualifiers, and he will most often be sitting beside us in the stands, so the consequences of these mistakes will not linger beyond May.
Valencia are not a PSG. In competitive terms, I would put them between Salzburg and Leipzig. I am not going to tell you we would put them out, but if we had played it tight, the tie would still be in the balance.