As soon as Marcos Senna's second-half free-kick curved past Artur Boruc, Celtic FC shoulders sagged and the result was beyond doubt. Although Villarreal CF earned their 1-0 victory and a shared lead of Group E, the visitors' performance was competent enough to make their inability to win away in the UEFA Champions League, a run now at 18 games, mystifying.
This was Villarreal's eighth match at home in the UEFA Champions League, including qualifying, and they are yet to lose. Part of their power is that 1-0 and a good performance is always enough to satisfy coach Manuel Pellegrini, and although the Spanish side did not dominate for 90 minutes their constant peppering of Boruc's goal, compared to the fleeting chances for Celtic, made this a just result.
The only surprise in the two lineups was that Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, previously a touchstone player for Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, was on the bench. But his players quickly showed they had understood his demands for a more careful and intelligent use of ball possession. True to his pre-match prediction he eschewed the in-vogue 4-5-1 formation and asked them to perform in a 4-2-3-1 shape with the ball and drop to a regular 4-4-2 when not in possession. The best of the early chances, however, fell to Villarreal when they opted for old-fashioned 'British' tactics, the long ball and a header on goal.
Although Shaun Maloney put a 12th-minute free-kick on target Villarreal were untroubled by the time they nearly took the lead. Sebastián Eguren's split-second decision to launch the ball over the Celtic back four left Giuseppe Rossi sprinting clear. Boruc dithered before sprawling and saving with his feet. Joseba Llorente had time to clip the rebound home only to loft his shot too high. Then a Senna corner in the 25th minute was planted right on Llorente's head, but his effort was clutched by Celtic's Polish goalkeeper.
It was not an outright onslaught but after Aiden McGeady curved a fierce shot round Diego López's post Rossi should have scored from ten metres when Santi Cazorla laid the chance on a plate for him. Punishment for profligacy nearly came three minutes before the break when López's outstanding save prevented Georgios Samaras from scoring. The second-half tempo was electric and when Stephen McManus nearly flicked in Gary Caldwell's header Celtic rattled the hosts. But the ebb and flow immediately took Rossi to the edge of Boruc's penalty box, the Italian's fierce shot edged narrowly wide.
Villarreal's intensity increased as good shots from Cazorla and Senna either side of the hour were well saved. The goal was patently coming and the Brazilian-born midfielder bent his free-kick past Boruc in the 67th minute. Only when Celtic added fresh legs did they begin to create real openings and when McGeady's lofted pass inside to substitute Scott McDonald allowed the Australian a spectacular volley it dipped agonisingly over. Typically Villarreal hit back and Boruc again saved splendidly from Llorente to seal a terrific personal performance.