TEEMU PUKKI began life as a Celtic player by scoring against Hearts, which another Finn used to do very well when he wore the green of Hibernian.
Mixu Paatelainen might have smiled when Pukki came off the bench to net on his debut at Tynecastle last month, but a repeat on the other side of Edinburgh might draw a scowl. Easter Road is very much Paatelainen’s spiritual home, with two spells as a player and one as a manager before taking charge of his country.
The Finland manager has spent the last two weeks in Pukki’s company and if the Celtic striker could not conjure up a goal in Paris to halt France on Tuesday, as he did to earn a famous draw in Spain in World Cup qualifying group I, then Paatelainen still found words of advice on how to settle in Scotland.
Until he took charge of Finland in 2011, Paatelainen spent just six of his 24 years in professional football in Scotland. From joining Dundee United in 1987 to hanging up his boots at Cowdenbeath, he was always in demand. Yet his hat-trick in the 6-2 rout of Hearts in October 2000 at Easter Road undoubtedly put him in Hibs’ hall of fame.
“I’m aware that he was a hero at Hibs as a player,” said Pukki yesterday. “I knew he really liked the place, but he’s not said to me exactly why he became so attached. Mixu has been watching our games and I spoke to him during the international break. He was able to give me some advice and I think he’s coming to Glasgow to watch the Ajax game. Mixu has passed on some tips to me and that’s always helpful because he knows the game here.”
Paatelainen also knows about the art of scoring. He netted 18 times in 70 games for Finland to become their fifth-highest marksman but recognises that Pukki is already facing intense scrutiny after failing to follow up on those two goals in his first two games, against Hearts and St Johnstone.
The £3.4million signing from Schalke admits that switching from the Bundesliga to the Scottish Premiership has been tough. “I’ve had some matches now without scoring but I’m sure that the goals will come,” insisted Pukki. “Everything is still quite new and it will take time for me to fully adapt, but I have time on my side. The hardest thing to get used to is new team-mates. I have to learn how they play and they need to get used to my style.
“It’s not for me to say how long this will take, but I’m confident it will work out. When I moved to Schalke (from HJK Helsinki) it took me a few months to settle. I scored in the early games but you still need to get used to everything at a new club. I am now playing more than in Germany and the team-mates have been very welcoming and the quality of the football here is better than people say. You have time for yourself when you get the ball and I’m fitting in well.”
Neil Lennon believes the meeting with Hibs is “pivotal” to a week that also features a crucial Champions League clash with Ajax.
Celtic return to domestic duty after the international break three points clear of Inverness at the top of the league table. The trip to Leith represents a chance to increase that lead, with Inverness not playing Partick until tomorrow, as well as acting as a tune-up for the visit of the Dutch champions on Tuesday as Celtic look to put their first European points on the board.
Defeats by AC Milan and Barcelona have dented their qualification hopes, which took another blow on Thursday when skipper Scott Brown’s suspension for his red card against the Catalan giants at Celtic Park was extended to three matches.
Celtic confirmed they will appeal after describing Uefa’s punishment as “excessive” but in the meantime, Parkhead boss Lennon is looking to build on the convincing home win over Motherwell in their last outing.
He said: “Talking about momentum, (the Hibs game) is pivotal. The players have responded to everything that we have asked them to do in the league but if they want to play on Tuesday night they are going to have to play at their best on Saturday. It is there for them and it is another great week for us.
“The Ajax game is huge in terms of the group and where we want to be in the group. I wouldn’t say it is a must-win game, but it is a game we would dearly love to win to get us up and running in the group.
“We mustn’t lose. I don’t like making predictions but if we could get four points out of the next two games it would set us up very nicely indeed. But it is a big ask.”