Technically, according to the statistics put out every year by UEFA, Celtic will be going up a level when they travel to meet Atletico Madrid on Thursday in the Europa League. As a result of these calculations three Spanish teams, as well as three English and three Italian sides, gain automatic entry to the group stages of the Champions League; while the winners of the SPL title have nowadays got to play two or even several matches to reach that lucrative level.
The La Liga table every season has some similarities with the SPL in that the same two sides usually dominate. This past season, for instance, the table finished;
(1) Barcelona 38 96
(2) Real Madrid 38 92
(3) Valencia 38 71
(7) At. Madrid 38 58
Seventh or not, the Spaniards will still be formidable opponents. They won the tournament in 2010, the first season it had been re-branded from the UEFA Cup and although the side which beat Fulham that night has disintegrated – Diego Forlan to Inter, Sergio Aguero to Manchester City and David de Gea to Manchester United all during this summer for instance – new stars have been brought in, at considerable expense.
Columbian Radamel Falcao, who scored 17 goals for Porto last season when they won the Europa League under new Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, cost £35 million. Arda Turan, the Turkish playmaker, arrived from Galatasaray for £12 million; the defender Silvio from Braga for £8 million; the midfielder Gabi, £3 million from Real Zaragoza; another midfielder, Julio Alves from Rio Ave, cost £2.5 million; while a loan signing from VfL Wolfsburg, the Brazilian Diego, is another player with an ability to control the game from midfield. Of the two matches played in La Liga this season so far, Atletico Madrid drew 0-0 with Osasuna and lost 0-1 to Valencia, so it looks as though the team, with its new players, has perhaps not quite settled into an effective formation.
Celtic must take that into account and try to knock the Spaniards off their stride. To sit back and try to defend would play right into their hands. These players love to be in control, to show their skills off in moving the ball round the pitch. Unlike the Scottish style, where attacks seem to come one after the other in exhausting – if exciting – fashion, these continental sides play the percentage game, content to keep possession until a gap appears in the opposing defence or one of their own players gets into a advantageous position.
What they do not like, though, is when opposing sides try to upset that rhythm and that is what Celtic must attempt to do at the Vicente Calderon Stadium, from which Atletico will move next year. I don’t mean that our guys should go ‘steaming in’; that sort of challenge is a prime candidate for a yellow or red card. They must just be in the faces of the Atletico players, give them no room to pass forwards and shut all spaces near our own goal. If we go out with that attitude – and temperament – then we could pick up a surprising result. Goodness knows, we could do with one after the disappointments away from home in recent years!
While on a European theme, this is a photo taken in Glasgow City Chambers, with yours truly in the Lisbon Lions blazer. The late Ernie Walker, former secretary of the Scottish Football Association, is in the light suit and the man in the middle is regularly described in any football anthology as one of the finest players ever in the game. So, who is he?