The Yellow Submarine had already qualified through to the last-16 before they arrived in Glasgow while Celtic’s European interest had ended for the season after losing in Aalborg in match day five, but a fine game ensued in front of a healthy crowd.
First-half goals from Shaun Maloney and Aiden McGeady – either side of the soft red card shown to Guille Franco for raising his hand to Hoops defender Gary Caldwell – gave the home side their first win in Group E although they still ended up bottom of the table.
Strachan looked back with more than an element of regret on this year’s European run but remains positive about the future for the Scottish champions.
He said: “We had a penalty at home against Aalborg and (if we score) we win the game and that’s three points.
“We did enough in Aalborg to win the game, everybody in this room whom I met has said we deserved to win. We had a smashing performance against Villarreal away and we were six minutes away from beating Manchester United here although we obviously had our backs to the wall.
“If you look at that then you can count up a few points that went missing. But the longer we stay as a group the better it is for everybody. If we stay together and don’t have to sell anybody, then that will be smashing.”
Strachan refused to dwell on the performance of under-fire keeper Artur Boruc whose error against Hibernian at Easter Road on Sunday was instrumental in the 2-0 defeat which ended the Hoops’ 12-game winning run in the SPL.
The Celtic boss resisted calls to drop the Poland international and was rewarded with a fine display by Boruc, topped by a brilliant second-half stop from Villarreal sub Nihat Kahveci.
Strachan, however, restricted himself to saying: “Artur did well. I did my bit by picking him, that says everything.”
Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini was in no mood to give Celtic credit.
“We played well in the first half and we had three of four chances but Celtic took advantage of an offside position to score their first goal,” the former River Plate coach said. “I didn’t see the sending off but it really changed the course of the game.”
With Manchester United drawing, his side passed up on the chance to top Group E but he said, “I don’t feel we have lost anything because we have qualified.”
The home side started brightly, Maloney testing goalkeeper Sebastian Viera with a drive from the edge of the box.
It was the first inkling of what was to come from the Parkhead men, and in the 14th minute they took the lead after Shunsuke Nakamura sent Mark Wilson towards the byline. When Wilson’s cross had the sting taken out of it by Viera, Maloney had the easiest of tasks to head into an empty net.
The goal stung the Spaniards, and the Scottish champions had to survive a few minutes of intense pressure. But in the 21st minute, Celtic might have made it 2-0 when Maloney’s wonderfully-crafted cross from the right just evaded Georgios Samaras.
In injury time, McGeady picked the ball up just over halfway and drove towards goal. From the edge of the box, he drilled a left-footed shot past Viera and into the corner of the net.
The visitors should have pulled a goal back in the 70th minute when Kahveci raced clear of the Hoops defence — but to the delight of the Celtic fans, Boruc produced a fine block from a close-range drive.
CELTIC: Boruc, Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Wilson (O’Dea 81), Nakamura, Scott Brown, Hartley, McGeady (McGowan 75), Maloney, Samaras (McDonald 81).
VILLARREAL: Viera, Angel, Fuentes, Rodriguez, Bruno, Cani, Senna (Nihat 45), Edmilson, Fernandez, Franco, Ibagaza (Santi Cazorla 60).
Referee: Claudio Circhetta (Switzerland).