Celtic host Valencia on Thursday evening in the last 32 of the Europa League and will be keen to give themselves as good a chance of progressing as possible before they travel to the Mestalla the following week for the second leg of the tie.
The Parkhead club fell short at this stage of the competition last season when they faced Zenit St Petersburg, recording a credible 1-0 win at home before falling to a disappointing 3-0 loss in Russia. With the first leg being played in Glasgow, Celtic will likely need a positive result if they’re to progress to the last 16 and attempt to make a real dent in the Europa League.
The Spanish club’s season has been blighted by inconsistency but, rather worryingly for Celtic fans, their form has picked up in recent weeks and things look like they are beginning to click for Marcelino’s team. Valencia have reached the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, lost just one of their last nine league fixtures and were only denied a win over Barcelona when a certain Lionel Messi took charge of the game in his own inimitable style.
A Valencia side in top gear provide particularly demanding opposition for Celtic, but is there anyone Brendan Rodgers should be especially worried about? We’ve taken a look at ones to watch for the Spanish giants, who boast a number players capable of turning a match on its head.
Valencia’s Spanish centre forward has always been billed as a player with bags of potential ever since he burst onto the scene in Portugal with Benfica and recent performances are justifying that initial hype. The 27-year-old only has seven goals to his name so far this season, but can perhaps consider himself a little unlucky in this regard. Around 43% of the striker’s shots are on target in La Liga this season: that’s more than the likes of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema (41.3%) or Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann (40.3%).
Rodrigo has also set up four goals for his team-mates – the eighth-highest total of any player in the Spanish top flight – and averages 2.96 shots per game on average. With five goals and two assists in his last seven games in all competitions, the forward will likely lead the Valencia attack and will need to be marked closely to avoid adding to his tally.
Another who used to ply his trade in Portugal, Goncalo Guedes joined Valencia after failing to break through at Paris Saint Germain following a big-money move from Benfica. The 22-year-old winger has pace to burn and will be Valencia’s main outlet on the left of their attack.
The Portuguese winger averages an impressive 8.46 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Spanish top flight and has the fifth-highest success rate with 84.5%; for a sense of perspective, that’s around 10% more successful than Messi, for example. Whether Rodgers starts with Mikael Lustig or Jeremy Toljan, space cannot be afforded to the winger and keeping Guedes quiet will be a huge ask for whoever is asked to do so.
The Russian winger caught the eye at last year’s World Cup and finished as one of the top scorers at the tournament with a total of four. Cheryshev came through the youth ranks at Real Madrid before moving to Villareal, then secured a move to Valencia off the back of his performances in Russia last summer.
The 28-year-old hasn’t featured too regularly for Marcelino’s side since he joined in the summer but whenever he has played, he has looked very dangerous on the left wing. Cheryshev has hit more key passes – passes which lead to a shot – than any other player in La Liga and comfortable has the highest key passes per 90 minutes rate of any player in Spain.
Some people might remember Gabriel Paulista from his time at Arsenal where he struggled for consistency in the English Premier League, but he has since gone on to cement his place in the Valencia back line since moving to the club in the summer of 2018. The Brazilian defender has the third-highest defensive duel success rate in La Liga with 40% of his attempts successful: only Levante’s Sergio Postigo and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane average a higher success rate than this.
Gabriel has also proven to be one of the best interceptors of the ball in Spain and his 6.83 interceptions per game places him just inside the top 15 players in La Liga in this regard. At 28 years old, the Brazilian is approaching the prime of his career and has looked particularly imperious when partnered alongside Ezequiel Garay in central defence.