John Hartson: Celtic can upset Valencia, they aren’t the team we played back in 2001

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THE focus for Celtic now turns back onto the Europa League after rounding off a hugely impressive spell since the winter break with the demolition of St Johnstone on Sunday.

Brendan Rodgers and his men go into the game in terrific form, and they will be confident going into a match against a real high-quality opponent in Valencia on Thursday night.

Don’t get me wrong though, this Valencia team isn’t a patch on the one that we faced back in 2001, when we were desperately unlucky to be put out of the UEFA Cup on penalties.

I get asked a lot who the best player I played against was throughout my career, and it was Valencia centre-back Roberto Ayala. No question.

I played against them all; Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Gary Pallister, Colin Hendry, you name him and I’ve played against him. But Ayala was something else. He was about five foot 10 but he was a rock. He got 125 caps for Argentina, so that tells you about the level of player we were up against.

In the first leg at the Mestalla it was him and Mauricio Pellegrino at the back, little and large. We got beat 1-0 on the night, but I have to say, if it wasn’t for Rab Douglas it could have been five or six. He was incredible.

The match back at Celtic Park was played in an incredible atmosphere, and Henrik Larsson scored to give us the 1-0 win to take it to penalties. I remember scoring mine, incidentally, but poor Joos Valgaeren missed two and we went out.

But my overriding memories of that night were just the unbelievable atmosphere and how much of a great team and a great club Valencia were.

Hopefully, the Celtic fans can create something similar on Thursday night, which I’m sure they will, and the team can come away with a similar result over the 90 minutes or even do a little better. I think they will need to take an advantage over to Spain for the second leg.

While I don’t think they are currently anywhere near the level of the Valencia team we played, they are no mugs. They went two up at the Camp Nou recently against Barcelona before being pegged back, so it’s not as if they are in bad form despite their lowly league position at the minute.

They have the likes of Francis Coquelin and Kevin Gamiero, so they have some good players and they will provide a stern test for Celtic. I think we are the underdogs, but I believe we can put in a great performance and make a fist of it so that we have something to fight for in a week’s time.

There are a couple of issues to address in terms of team selection for Brendan Rodgers. Now, most fans might disagree with me on this first big call, because a lot of supporters I believe would give Scott Bain the nod to start, and I agree that he has been outstanding since he came into the side. He made an outstanding and crucial save from Chris Kane on Sunday, and he has been very impressive overall. It is a sign of a good Celtic goalkeeper when you are still able to pull off saves like that and maintain your concentration when you have had long spells of having nothing to do.

Personally though, I would lean towards big Craig Gordon, simply because I believe his experience gives him the edge for a game of this magnitude.

Gordon has played in a lot of big European matches, and he has also been an international goalkeeper for years. It is a difficult call, because Bain has been playing regularly and that is important for a goalkeeper, but the fact that Gordon has been there before and made those outstanding saves throughout his career on the big stage makes me lean towards him.

Injuries will dictate the defence, but hopefully Emilio Izaguirre can make it at left-back, which would leave Jeremy Toljan playing on the other side of Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic in the middle.

The midfield has been great recently, and Scott Brown – fresh from his trademark worldy on Sunday – will play alongside Callum McGregor, while Ryan Christie will be ahead of them.

Further up the pitch, Celtic have serious options now, but I can only see them going with the front three that terrorised St Johnstone; James Forrest, Scott Sinclair and in particular, Oliver Burke.

Burke was brilliant on Sunday and his running from deep to create the two goals for Sinclair was really impressive. I always believe in picking players who are in form, and while myself, Chris Sutton and Ally McCoist all agreed when we spoke about him that he is not a number nine, he can really hurt teams running at them from that deeper position he likes to drop into.

He is back to being the Oliver Burke that we saw earlier in his career, and when he is in this sort of mood, he takes some stopping.

For me, with the possible exception of the goalkeeper’s position, this represents Celtic’s strongest team at the moment in terms of form and fitness. Hopefully it will be enough to ensure another memorable European night under the lights at Celtic Park.