Submarine surprise for Bhoys?
Celtic supporters can be excused for feeling a bit cocky this week. For starters, Saturday's remarkable 2-2 draw against Hearts, which extended their astonishing unbeaten run at home to 76 games, was a feat of escapology Harry Houdini himself would have been proud of.
Of course the green and white clad legions must wait for Thursday night before sampling the main course. An appetizing UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg meeting with Spanish upstarts Villarreal is on the Parkhead menu and while the blindly optimistic among Celtic supporters might anticipate a cakewalk, the canny Martin O'Neill will have none of it.
The Celtic boss is the acknowledged master of playing down expectations. Deep down though, O'Neill's analytical approach surely brings him to the conclusion that on counts of history, pedigree and club size, Villarreal are the featherweights in the fight.
Revelling in the romantic nickname of the 'yellow submarine,' this club from an industrial town on Spain's Mediterranean coast, enjoyed a fairly unremarkable existence until clinching promotion to the top flight for the first time in 1998. Relegation couldn't be prevented in that maiden Primera season but Villarreal came straight back up in 2000 and have remained in Spain's elite division ever since.
Simply occupying the same plush playground as Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona must go down as a noteworthy achievement for a team with no major honours to its name. This time last year you'd have been laughed at had you suggested a European run was on the cards. That was until a sensational series of results against the Serie A side Brescia, Brno of the Czech Republic and finally Dutch representatives Heerenveen in the oft-mocked Intertoto Cup propelled Villarreal into the role of unlikely UEFA Cup protagonists.
Little did anyone in Spain think the 'submarine' was capable of submerging and stifling more experienced European campaigners but that's exactly what transpired as Turkish clubs Trabzonspor and Galatasaray in addition to Torpedo Moscow and even mighty Roma can all testify. To reach the last eight in European football's second most prestigious club competition, you must have a few things going for you.
Celtic have no doubt spent the last few days digesting every morsel concerning their quarter-final opponents and they can certainly count on Villarreal being doggedly defensive away from home while having the capacity to launch well-timed counters at pace. The formation is almost always 4-2-3-1 with the two 'double pivots'- to use Spanish parlance - providing a sturdy shield for the back four.
Interestingly most of their key players hail from Argentina and are former pupils of that country's most fervently followed club Boca Juniors, thanks to a close friendship between Villarreal president Fernando Roig and Mauricio Macri, his opposite number at Boca.
Fabricio Coloccini, a strange looking centre half with an unkempt mop of curly hair bordering on a shade of orange, can nevertheless read a game and time a tackle. To Coloccini's left, the more orthodox looking Rodolfo Arruabarrena thrives on the one-against-one jousts that can so decisively influence these important European nights. Arruabarena's toe-to-toe confrontation with Celtic's wide man Didier Agathe should be compelling from the very start.
In midfield, Sebastian Battaglia is the newest arrival among the Boca old boys. Signed in January after helping the Buenos Aires harbour club beat Milan to win the Toyota Cup, Battaglia's combative holding play has frustrated many a big-name Liga opponent and he'll be hoping to make Stilian Petrov his latest victim.
Yet Juan Roman Riquelme remains the most intriguing of all Villarreal's Argentinian imports. The media-shy playmaker was shipped out of Barcelona and along the coast last season after a season of misery under a coach (Louis van Gaal) who found his style of play too phlegmatic.
At times Riquelme does indeed move sluggishly, but his slide-rule passing ability and prowess at dead-ball situations more than compensate for a lack of pace. The technical importance of Riquelme is not lost on Paquito, the former assistant coach who took over the reins from Benito Floro in February. Neil Lennon might have his hands full with Riquelme's deceptiveness on Thursday night.
The tie that binds Celtic to Villarreal is of course Barcelona. Celtic's 0-0 draw at Camp Nou will rightly go down in the annals of great Scottish performances in Europe but as if to prove that anything you can do, we can do just as well, Villarreal achieved the exact same result away to Barca on Saturday, thanks to a display that was no less courageous.
Their timing was nothing short of impeccable too, as it ended a run of six consecutive away defeats in the Primera, while breaking Barcelona's string of nine successive league victories. All very satisfying for a team chock full of former Barcelona players. Goalkeeper Reina, captain Quique Alvarez, the impressive left-footed Roger and wily Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson, plus of course Riquelme, have all had stints with the Catalan giants.
Villarreal's icy cool comportment at Rome's Olympic Stadium and the Nou Camp - both coming in the space of ten days - surely dispel any notion that capitulation amid the bedlam of a ground packed to the gunwales is likely. When it comes to Houdini acts, two can play at this game.