A committed and determined Celtic side went out of the UEFA Youth League tonight, after an excellent performance at Celtic Park agaisnt a very good Valencia team.
It took a nail-biting penalty shoot out to decide the tie, but Celtic’s youngsters are entirely justified in holding their heads high regardless of that outcome.
The crack Spaniards came to town confident of getting a win, having only conceded two goals in their previous six matches.
This was a knockout game played over one leg, and they played nice football.
Yet Celtic’s young side had the measure of them from the first.
The Spaniards were dangerous on the attack, but the Celtic defence was well organised and focussed throughout. From around the 20 minute mark we began to really get a grip on things, and it was Calvin Miller who was the architect of our first serious chance in the game, taking the ball down the left side and sweetly crossing it into the box, where Archibald narrowly failed to get on the end of it. It was a fine move, and deserved a better finish.
The breakthrough came on 39 minutes, when Aitchison latched on to a quite sublime Jamie McCart ball through the middle. The pass really was perfection, putting the number 9 through on the goalkeeper, who came out to narrow the angle.
Aitchison – who’s only 15 – coolly took the ball around him and chipped it into the empty net.
Beautiful, inspiring stuff.
I have to say that it was impressive the way we shut them down whenever they pushed us back. Youth team coaching is evidently excellent; the players all knew their roles and their duties and when they came forward they did it with a confidence the first team hasn’t showed in continental football for a while.
These kids were not phased in the slightest; they believed in themselves and that made me believe in them.
Some of these players are just destined to be stars. Young Mark Hill has been getting rave reviews for a while, and Calvin Miller is a player I’ve long admired. But young Wardrop was superb and so was Hendry, Archibald and Aitchison.
We had gone in at half time a goal to the good, and we started the second half like we meant business. Valencia were on the back foot for the first fifteen minutes. They came into the game after that but on 70 minutes a shocking tackle got its clear award – a straight red card for Jimenez, their best defender.
In spite of that, the game was pretty evenly matched until late … when it went horribly wrong.
Before Valencia’s equaliser we survived two very big scares, first when Hazard tried to be too clever, by dribbling the ball around a Valencia player only to hit it off him. The Celtic keeper was alert though, and retreated quickly enough to make an excellent, redemptive save.
A moment later, we cleared the ball again after a mad scramble that brought back memories of recent first team horror shows … only to concede a sickening equaliser a minute after that.
Heads might have gone down then, but we almost won the lead back sixty second later, when one of our subs, Murray, raced through on their keeper after another absolutely wonderful pass through the Valencia defence.
But their man was up to the job, and came out to block the shot.
Six minutes were added on for stoppages, which had the small Celtic contingent – who barely stopped singing for a moment – on their feet and getting right behind the team for the final run. A few minutes into injury time, the ref showed that Honest Mistakes aren’t confined to Scotland after Aitchison got past the last defender only to be pulled back for a foul.
No-one, including the commentators on BT Sport, had the first clue why.
It was a ridiculous decision.
The way we had played deserved better than the random horror of penalties.
Nevertheless, that’s what we got and Valencia went first.
Their number six chose to hit the ball high, and it cracked off the top of the bar. Hendry took our first penalty, knowing it would give us a crucial advantage. The keeper got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out.
Valencia’s second penalty came off the bar too, but it was the underside of the bar and that was 1-1. Murray, who’d missed that late chance, took our next kick and he didn’t miss this time.
Valencia’s number 7 went next, and although the Celtic keeper went the right way and almost got to it, it crept in under him. Archibald went for Celtic … and their keeper got his hands on it. The young Celt looked despondent as he walked away.
A moment later, Hazard was the hero as he grabbed the next one and held it tight. Celtic’s Keiran Lafferty slotted his away … and Valencia had to score.
They did … and Aidan McIlduff stepped up, knowing all he had to was put it away and we were in the next round. The pressure must have been intense. He hit it high and to the left, and the Valencia keeper read it brilliantly, judging the height and power to make a fine save.
3-3. Sudden death.
And it was Valencia’s captain’s turn to hit the next penalty … and he hit it over the bar. Celtic’s own captain stepped up … and he, too, blasted it over.
Seventh penalty for Valencia … and they scored it.
For the first time in the shoot-out the pressure had swung the other way.
McCart now stepped up knowing a miss would send the team out.
Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.
In spite of that, I enjoyed this one, I really did. Result notwithstanding, the application and the attitude were right on.
Penalties are a mental test of strength continental sides just seem able to handle with aplomb; for the rest of us they are a sickening experience which gets no better from having seen literally dozens of them down the years.
I thought the Young Hoops showed us something tonight, although the result wasn’t what we’d have wanted.
I hope the players aren’t too downhearted after it, particularly those who missed their spot kicks.
They’ll get another crack at this.
They’re too good not to.