VALENCIA 1 CELTIC 0 (Agg: 3-0)
IT was an evening for heroes in the Mestalla and several Celtic players, led by skipper Scott Brown, stood up to be counted.
However, at the end of a courageous, gutsy performance the Hoops are still without a win on Spanish soil and their Europa League hopes are over.
It was a glorious failure from a team that found themselves a man short for 53 minutes against a very good Valencia following the diabolical dismissal of Jeremy Toljan for two innocuous yellow cards.
By the 36th minute, Celtic had eight attempts at goal with two on target, the same amount as the entire match at Parkhead last week.
By the 37th minute, they were down to 10 men following some crazy refereeing from match official Deniz Aytekin who sent off his fellow-German Toljan after flashing a second yellow card at the right-back.
There wasn’t much in the first caution as he was punished for a tug on an opponent, but the second was a stumble by the on-loan Borussia Dortmund defender into a Spaniard who was coming in on his blindside.
OFF…Jeremy Toljan sees red in the first-half.
There was a tangle of legs as both players toppled to the turf. Astonishingly, the whistler reached for another yellow and a bemused Toljan was banished.
The red card changed the entire complexion of the contest. Until then, the Hoops were in control and looking extremely comfortable.
There was a poise and a purpose about their play that had been strangely absent in Glasgow. They were switching the ball about crisply and Oliver Burke was creating havoc with his place through the middle.
Jonny Hayes was offering a threat going forward on the left flank and skipper Brown, who was also booked by an over-fussy ref, was dictating play.
It took only four minutes for the visitors to get a shot on goal when Hayes tried his luck, but the effort lacked precision or pace to trouble Neto and the Brazilian keeper made a comfortable save.
Six minutes later, a Ryan Christie left-wing corner-kick fell to Kristoffer Ajer and the Norwegian thumped in a vicious first-timer. It was blocked and the ball rebounded to the defender, but this time he walloped it wildly into the crowd.
SALUTE FROM THE HEROES…Jozo Simunovic, Odsonne Edouard and Scott Brown applaud the fans.
In the 19th minute, Burke raced away from friend and foe and, with none of his team-mates having the pace to keep up with him, the striker was forced to have a shot at goal and his angled drive was diverted to safety.
Celtic were creating problems for the home side as they continued to dictate play and in the 33rd minute Burke burst through on the left, but lost momentum with a heavy second touch and the chance was lost.
In the 36th minute, the eager Hayes materialised again on the left-gand side of the box, but he lost his composure at the crucial moment and slashed an angled drive into the side net.
Then came the bizarre sending-off of Toljan and the home team smelled blood for the first time tonight. In the 42nd minute, skipper Daniel Parejo fired in a shot from the edge of the box that clipped off Ryan Christie’s heel and spun high towards the net.
Scott Bain managed to twist in mid-air and athletically push the ball over the bar. It was a breathtaking save.
Before the interval, Bain produced another stunning stop as he punched away and vicious drive from Santi Mina that was heading for the net.
Celtic had to regroup again after the interval and, unsurprisingly, the Spaniards, with the precious man advantage, swarmed forward as they looked for the goal that would surely kill the tie as a contest.
Jozo Simunovic cleared from under the crossbar following a wicked low left-wing cross from Mina and, shortly afterwards, Daniel Wass zipped in a first-time 20-yarder, but Bain confidently held on.
Brown was far from happy with the German referee when he took no action against Parejo when he was tugged back by the home captain. It was identical to the offence that brought Toljan his first booking.
SO NEAR…Brendan Rodgers saw his team display some wonderful battling qualities.
The hard-working Hayes was yellow-carded, though, after a clash with wonderkid Ferran Torres.
In the 62nd minute, Ajer had a miss that will haunt them for the rest of his career. Christie arced in a splendid and inviting free-kick from the right.
The Norwegian skyscraper timed his run forward to perfection to be left with a free header, but from a mere four yards, he thumped an effort over the bar with the goal gaping.
Eight minutes later, it was all over. Hayes lost the flight of a long diagonal cross from the left by Parejo, Wass headed down to substitute Kevin Gameiro, who had just joined the action, and he nudged the ball goalward.
Bain tried desperately to block the close-range effort, but, alas, the ball struck the keeper and diverted over the line.
It was that sort of night for Celtic.
Brendan Rodgers sent on Odsonne Edouard for Forrest in the 63rd minute and then put on Mikey Johnston for the tiring Burke 10 minutes later.
Unfortunately, neither substitute produced a thing of note as the game slipped away from the visitors.
Skipper Brown put in a Man of the Match performance while Dedryck Boyata, Simunovic and Ajer, despite his horror miss, were excellent in defence.
Bain produced the saves when he was required, apart from the goal, of course.
Hayes never stopped working and Callum McGregor and Christie were neat and tidy in most of their work.
So, the team is certainly worthy of a round of applause after a real backs-to-the-wall display against quality opposition that, with a little bit of good fortune, might have produced an entirely different scoreline.
This last-32 tie was not lost in the Mestalla this evening. Sadly, it was surrendered in Glasgow a week ago.
TEAM: Bain; Toljan, Simunovic, Boyata, Ajer, Hayes; Forrest (sub: Edouard 63), Brown, McGregor, Christie; Burke (sub: Johnston 73).