Spain has always been a hard shift for Celtic. We started our European adventure in the old ‘Fairs Cup with a 4-2 defeat to Valencia in 1962 and lost on our first five visits until the rarest of things – an away result in the 1980s against a team we knew! That was a 1-1 draw at Atletico Madrid in 1985, although the return leg at a behind closed doors game at Celtic Park brought the return of 80s European form.
The 80s and 90s were largely a write-off for Celtic in Europe. Things didn’t change until the arrival of Martin O’Neill brought Celtic into the moder era. We were not back in Spain in competitive action for 16 years, when Valencia edged the first leg in a tie we eventually lost on penalties (Rab Doulgas saved two but Henrik, Stiliyan Petrov and Joos Valgaeren missed).
Then came our purple patch in Spain. A 2-1 second leg defeat to Celta Vigo in 2002 was enough to see us through on away goals. The phrase “European competition at Christmas” was on everyone’s lips, the first time we had uttered it since 1979. Thousands of us travelled to Seville for the Uefa Cup Final that season, when we were denied in controversial circumstances.
In March of 2004 19-year-old David Marshall put in one of the all-time great Celtic goalkeeping performances to secure a 0-0 second leg result in Barcelona, enough to see us through to the Uefa Cup quarterfinal. That tie sent us back to Spain and a second leg defeat at Villarreal, dreams of a second successive Uefa Cup semifinal ended at the feet of the brilliant Riquelme.
We were back in Spain in November that year, back at the Camp Nou and again returned home with a draw, the first time we took an away point in the Champions League. 2004 was the highpoint for Celtic in Spain.
Since then we have suffered nine defeats in nine visits, uniform results, although they fall into two distinct eras. We conceded only six goals across the first four visits, scoring twice. On the last of those occasions, we were denied a point by a final minute goal in the Camp Nou, a result which ultimately cost us top place in the Champions League group.
Then it fell apart as the Catalans seemed to have our measure. Visits to Barcelona saw us concede six in 2013 and seven in 2016. Brendan Rodgers said his goodbyes after a 1-0 defeat to Valencia in February 2019. We ensured a bizarre defeat to Real Betis early in the Ange Postecoglou reign, allowing a two-goal lead to slip. Ange took us back to Spain in last season’s Champions League, we attacked with vigour and lost convincingly.
Even a draw tonight would be an historic result. I had no expectations other than a defeat to Atletico at Celtic Park two weeks ago, so what do I know? The guy cleaning the office windows just told me we’re going to win 1-2, that’ll do.