Celtic FC finished a disappointing UEFA Champions League campaign on a high note as first-half strikes from Shaun Maloney and Aiden McGeady earned victory against ten-man Villarreal CF, denying the Spanish side first place in Group E in the process.
Celtic's first five fixtures had brought just two points and ensured they would end the campaign bottom of the section, yet Gordon Strachan's side were on top from the outset in Glasgow and took an early lead when Maloney nodded in. Villarreal's hopes were further dented by Guille Franco's red card just past the half-hour, and McGeady effectively ended their challenge with a fine second in the final seconds of the first period – although it is the Yellow Submarine who will take their place in the first knockout round draw on 19 December.
Celtic started brightly and tested Villarreal goalkeeper Sebastián Viera, in for first-choice Diego López, after just two minutes when Maloney's 20-metre shot was well saved. The visitors launched their first attack moments later as Cani slipped a clever pass to Franco, but the alert Artur Boruc blocked the striker's close-range effort in what proved to be one of the Spanish side's few real openings. Instead Celtic continued to press and broke through in the 13th minute, Scott Brown threading a pass through to Mark Wilson on the left. Viera failed to gather the full-back's high cross and Maloney took full advantage, nodding in from close range.
Villarreal strove in vain for a way back into the contest, yet their one-goal deficit also became a numerical disadvantage ten minutes before half-time when Franco was shown a straight red card following an altercation with Gary Caldwell. The Scottish champions made the most of the extra man and, with Villarreal retreating ever deeper, doubled their lead through McGeady almost on the stroke of the interval. The Republic of Ireland international collacted Andreas Hinkel's pass and advanced to within 25 metres of the Villarreal goal before unleashing an unstoppable low drive that found the bottom corner of the net.
All or nothing
Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini was forced to shuffle his lineup at the interval and chose to withdraw captain Marcos Senna in favour of Turkey international striker Nihat Kahveci. That adventurous change almost paid off within eleven minutes when the substitute volleyed a fraction wide from a Cani corner kick, and Santi Cazorla was next to be summoned from the bench as Villarreal searched for a response. Celtic, however, remained in control and only a sprightly Viera stop prevented Georgios Samaras flicking in Andreas Hinkel's cross.
The chance Villarreal had been waiting for arrived in the 69th minute, Nihat springing the Celtic defence and bearing down on the exposed Boruc, yet again the Celtic goalkeeper was equal to the task, producing an outstanding block to preserve the two-goal cushion. Duly warned, Celtic appeared happy to protect their advantage and rarely threatened in the closing phase of the match. However, while the result may have done much to restore the Scottish champions' wounded pride, it is Manuel Pellegrini's Villarreal who advance to the last 16.