Lennon espouses cautious optimism ahead of Euro tie
THE clairvoyant properties of Jose Mourinho are largely unknown. Neil Lennon, though, will be hoping the Portuguese is sound in his football hunches beyond his own orbit after the Real Madrid manager had words of encouragement for his Celtic counterpart following their clubs’ friendly in Philadelphia last weekend.
“He just wished us good luck, said congratulations on winning the league and that he felt we would do well,” Lennon says. “The Champions League draw had been made the day before and he said ‘you’ve got a good chance of getting through that’ but he didn’t elaborate too much more.”
Mourinho didn’t need to do so. The Irishman knows that the play-off round tie, which will see his team pitch up to Helsingborg’s Olympia Stadium in two days for the first leg, has understandably been placed in should-win category – however uncomfortable that may make him over the confidence expressed in the outcome from the club’s followers.
“They are a good side,” Lennon says. “We watched them last week and they scored seven [in a 7-2 win over Kalmar], and that’s pretty impressive at any level. They are strong defensively, although they have lost their leading goalscorer Alfred Finnbogason to Heerenveen, which is a huge bonus for us because he was one of their best players on the day.
“It’s a great opportunity for us but we know it’s a great chance for Helsingborg as well. Scandinavian teams are very difficult opposition and I’m not taking this tie lightly at all. For a lot of people the expectation level has gone through the roof since we beat Helsinki [2-0 away, in the third qualifying round] but as far as I’m concerned we are playing that down. I think they are a step up from Helsinki, they’ve probably got better strikers for a start. I’m not sure they play as much football but they are more pragmatic in their approach to the game than Helsinki.
“They beat Sunderland 2-0 in pre-season so we are trying to get hold of Martin O’Neill and Steve Walford for their views on them. I’m sure we’ll catch up on them before we go away on Monday. That they beat an English Premiership side says a lot about their standard. They have a bit of experience in midfield and the South African lad May Mahlangu in central midfield is a very good player [and was Sweden’s player of the year last year]. But it’s a game that is winnable, though we have to approach it with caution.”
With Swede Johan Mjallby by his side, Lennon at least need not be apprehensive about the possibility of Helsingborg holding any real surprises for his team. And assistant Mjallby’s local knowledge meant he didn’t even need consider attempting some arm-twisting with former team-mate Henrik Larsson, who devoted the majority of his career to the two clubs that will be scrapping for the prize of a £15-million, prestige-laden place in the Champions League group stages.
“I haven’t spoken to Henrik, I wouldn’t do that to him,” said Lennon. “I think he has already come out publicly and said he has a foot in both camps so it would be unfair to put him in that position. Johan knows the Swedish game better than anybody so he will have people he can turn to for first-hand knowledge. What we do know is that Swedish teams are mentally strong. If you look at the national team they’ve made a habit of qualifying for the big tournaments on a consistent basis. If we can take any sort of result back to Celtic Park we will be delighted.”
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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