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From valleys to the peaks of Europe

YOU can take the Bhoy out the Champions League. But you cannot take the Champions League out of the boyo.

A step too far: Adam Matthews has admitted that Celtic's players set a target of getting out of a group containing AC Milan, Ajax and Barcelona to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. Picture: Getty Sport
A step too far: Adam Matthews has admitted that Celtic's players set a target of getting out of a group containing AC Milan, Ajax and Barcelona to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. Picture: Getty Sport

The Welsh strand to Europe's top competition continues but Adam Matthews is left as merely an interested bystander.

The boyo from Swansea, though, is enthused by the prospect of future participation in the best club competition in the world and by watching his mate, Gareth Bale, attempt to win it in his first season with Real Madrid.

Celtic, of course, exited at the group stage but Matthews has high hopes for Bale with Real Madrid now in the quarter-finals after dismissing Schalke last night.

Bale, at 24, has already complemented the sublime excellence of Cristiano Ronaldo as Carlo Ancelotti's team make a convincing claim to be La Liga champions and strong contenders in the Champions League.

"I will be watching the Champions League because it's the best club tournament in the world," said Matthews yesterday with just a hint of regret. "Even if you're not in it, every footballer watches it."

His interest is piqued by the participation of Bale who he keeps in contact with after the midfielder's £86m move from Tottenham Hotspur to Madrid.

"They've got a great team there, all hitting top form - they've got a great chance of winning," said Matthews, who added that Bale was enjoying his first season at the Bernabeu. "Who wouldn't?" he added reasonably.

Matthews has played 12 times for Wales and in 21 European games for Celtic so, even at just 22, he has a considerable experience of top-level football. He places Bale in the highest class.

"Would I fancy playing against him? I don't think I'd enjoy it," he said. "I've never played against him in a proper game, only in training - and that's hard enough."

He does nurture the hope of coming up against his fellow Welshman in European competition. "Obviously it would be great to play against Real Madrid, as tough a game as there is," he said. "You always want to play against the best players in the world and, right now, Gareth is right up there. If I do get the chance to play against him, I'll do my best. And maybe hope he's on the opposite wing."

The light-hearted mood disguised a real desire to compete again in Europe. Celtic revelled in the run to the knockout stages last season and were hurt by non-qualification from the group this season, particularly the 6-1 whipping from Barcelona.

"I do see that level of football as the very pinnacle," he said. "We were disappointed with where we finished this season but, looking at last season, getting to the last 16 was a massive achievement for us. That has to be our goal next season, to get to the group stages and then progress."

The lure of the Champions League brought Matthews to Celtic Park and it has kept him in Scotland even as another compatriot, Joe Ledley, has headed to the Barclays Premier League with Crystal Palace.

"Yeah, part of the attraction of signing a new deal was the Champions League - every player wants to be there," said Matthews who has two years to run on his extended contract.

Celtic face three qualifiers to progress to the group stages with matches being played at Murrayfield. The Scottish champions only made the group stages this season after a late winner against Shakhtar Karagandy of Kazakhstan and Matthews admits the process can be tough and draining.

Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, has the opportunity to rest players for the qualifiers in July after the SPFL Premiership is officially won, with his team being possibly just three matches from a third consecutive title, starting with St Mirren at home on Saturday.

Matthews is delighted with the way his career has progressed after signing on at Cardiff City at the age of eight on academy terms then signing for Celtic in a pre-contract agreement in February 2011.

The full-back has graduated through under-age national sides and only injury has disrupted him at Celtic. "I don't have any specific unfulfilled ambition," he said. "I've achieved more than I ever thought I would in football already."

A childhood in Swansea in which he was courted by professional football and rugby teams has been followed by a Celtic career that has alerted scouts in England. Quick and increasingly good defensively, Matthews has scope to play at full-back or wide right in midfield.

"If I'm being honest, when I was younger I never thought I would even play in the Champions League - and now I've got two campaigns under my belt," he said.

"You've got to enjoy it, embrace it, not be too nervous. You are playing against the best players, so you can only get better from the experience.

"We played Barcelona two seasons in a row and, in three out of the four games, we did really well. Obviously we didn't do ourselves justice in the last game - but there aren't many teams who can say they've beaten Barca, and we have. Taking on the likes of Messi and Iniesta has to improve you as a player, definitely."

He revealed that Celtic players had set a target at the beginning of the season to make the last 16 of the Champions League. "We were in the toughest group but we were still confident we could progress," he said of a group containing Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax.

"Most people outside the club will say it's an achievement for Celtic just to reach the group stage. But we're confident we can reach the last 16 - and hopefully go beyond that," he added.

The meeting with Bale may yet arrive on a foreign field.

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