Celtic's turn to be big noises in the Valencia cauldron

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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill enjoyed one of the happiest nights of his career in Valencia almost 20 years ago. For the rest of British football, however, the pain in Spain lies mainly in the Mestella Stadium. Only Manchester United have survived a visit to Europe's most suffocating arena, where O'Neill and Northern Ireland inflicted that memorable defeat on the host nation in the 1982 World Cup finals. Leeds United and Rangers have perished there in recent seasons and if Celtic's manager can succeed in silencing the raucous ground for a second time, it would truly be something to shout about.

The Uefa Cup offered little compassion when Celtic were parachuted down from the Champions' League two weeks ago. To say that a third-round tie against the team who played in the last two Champions' League finals is formidable is to be guilty of gross understatement.

When Manchester United drew there 0-0 last season, it was the final, dead group game. Valencia, unbeaten at home in their last 28 European ties, are a stark contrast to the moderate Spanish national side put to the sword by Gerry Armstrong's celebrated winner for Northern Ireland all those years ago.

"I'll maybe speak to Gerry about what to do, he's the expert," joked O'Neill about his erstwhile team-mate, who has since built a career analysing Spanish football for satellite television. In truth, though, O'Neill will have to rely on his own analysis. The warm glow of that remarkable 4-3 victory over Juventus in the last Champions' League match still remains at Celtic, but O'Neill will have spent the time feverishly trying to stem the 13 goals his team conceded in their six group games.

His frank appraisal of those frailties actually reunited him with Valencia five months ago. The Celtic manager tried to persuade Mauricio Pelligrino, the Argentina central defender, to swap paella for Parkhead and offered £6m. "I made an inquiry – but I think it was spurned within a second and a half," recalls O'Neill, which is evidence of Pelligrino's value to Valencia.

Much will depend on whether Lubomir Moravcik, the inspiration behind the defeat of Juventus, plays or is relegated to the bench. Moravcik's skill is not in doubt, but at 36 he no longer has the energy to fill defensive gaps in midfield.

"I think we can beat any team in Europe at Parkhead," insists Moravcik, perhaps betraying that he knows his talents will be put in cold storage for a fortnight to allow the younger, more vigorous Stilian Petrov to patrol the midfield pressure cooker.

Rangers wilted there three seasons ago but, on Thursday night, they will enjoy the home comforts of Ibrox as they try to negotiate their way past Paris St Germain in the second half of Glasgow's Uefa Cup double bill. The capricious French side are yet again failing to live up expectations, even though Luis Fernandez has returned to the helm. PSG lie mid-table in the French first division, nine points off the pace being set by Lens and hardly justifying the outlay of £50m on players over the last two torrid seasons.

Nicolas Anelka accounted for £22m of that sum, and the former Arsenal striker will be the man who demands constant vigilance from a team who impressively disposed of Dynamo Moscow 7-2 on aggregate in the last round, sealed with a 4-1 win in Russia.

"We took a lot of confidence from that result in Moscow," said defender Arthur Numan. "But we also remember how we switched off for a second in stoppage time at Ibrox to let Dynamo score when looked to have killed the tie at 3-0. We cannot afford to do that again."

Numan knows only too well that the rumblings emanating from back home in Holland mean that Dick Advocaat, touted as a possible successor to Louis van Gaal as Dutch national coach, might not be at Ibrox even his team progress into the next round. "There is a lot of speculation that van Gaal is under pressure because we didn't qualify for the World Cup finals," said the Dutch international. "There are lots of names in the papers, such as Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit and Ronald Koeman. Dick Advocaat is one of them, but you would have to ask him if he is staying or going."

As for the Uefa Cup, Celtic and Rangers are simply hoping they can both stick around for a bit longer.

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