NEIL Lennon last night admitted Celtic’s hopes of Champions League progress are “in the balance” but expressed confidence they will complete a third qualifying round victory over Elfsborg in Sweden next week.
The Scottish champions had to settle for a 1-0 advantage from a first leg they largely dominated at Parkhead, courtesy of Kris Commons’ 76th-minute goal, but that was enough to leave Lennon a contented man afterwards. The Celtic manager revealed it was an outcome he would happily have accepted beforehand against an Elfsborg side who are midway through their domestic season.
Buoyed by Celtic’s impressive away form in the tournament last season, Lennon has no doubts his players can also achieve a positive result on the artificial playing surface at the Swedish champions’ Boras Arena next Wednesday.
“It wasn’t frustrating tonight, it was understandable in the circumstances,” said Lennon. “I’m delighted with the performance and the result.
“It’s the first real competitive game we’ve had and there was obviously a bit of rust there. We will be a week fitter and a week sharper for the second leg. We have a game in between when we start the league season on Saturday.
“The tie is probably still in the balance but we are confident we can go over there next week and get a result as well.
“I would probably have taken a 1-0 win if it was offered to me before the game tonight, considering where we are and where Elfsborg are in our seasons. These are not easy games at all.
“We had to be patient. Elfsborg made it difficult for us to break them down. But the crucial thing is we kept a clean sheet as well. If we score over there, they will need to score three. We are hoping to give them plenty to think about next week. You can’t make predictions but what I do know is that we are growing, we are learning from experience in Europe. Our away form last season was very, very good. There is a belief about the players away from home now.
“The astroturf pitch over there might change things a little bit but I’m really pleased with the result tonight.”
Lennon was gratified by the understanding shown by the Celtic supporters who were almost as patient as his players on an often nervy evening with so much at stake.
“I thought the crowd were really great,” observed Lennon. “They supported the team the whole way and the roof came off when we scored. They didn’t get frustrated. It could have been easy for them to get on the team’s back, but they didn’t. They stayed with the team, kept singing and we got the goal we deserved.
“We weren’t at our best but that was always going to be the case and I have to compliment the team. They dug out a very, very good result.
“The tackling of the Elfsborg players got a little bit tasty in the second half and I thought one of the tackles on Georgios Samaras was borderline red. He is a wee bit sore after the game. But he was fantastic. The longer the game goes on, the better he seems to get and he really stretched Elfsborg at times.”
Mo Bangura was inevitably the centre of attention for much of the night, the on-loan Elfsborg striker receiving significant abuse from the Celtic supporters throughout as he defied Lennon’s wishes to play against his parent club.
“I thought he did well, considering it was a thankless task for him,” reflected Lennon. “He tried to hold the ball up as best he could but I felt Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson handled him very well for us.”
Match winner Commons felt Elfsborg had paid Celtic the ultimate compliment in the defensive manner they approached the match.
“It reminded me of how we played against Barcelona last season,” said Commons. “If you are up against better players, you need to defend like that. Fraser Forster could have stayed in the changing room tonight for all he had to do.
“In the overall scheme of things, that could be a vital goal I scored. I think we will score over there. Elfsborg have got to come out and attack now and that will be better for us.”
Elfsborg coach Jorgen Lennartsson, however, is satisfied his team have given themselves an excellent chance of upsetting Celtic to reach the play-off round of the Champions League.
“We played exactly as I wanted us to play, especially in the first half,” said Lennartsson. “Our defensive performance was excellent. In the second half, we were a little bit too deep and Celtic pressed us more.
“We hoped we could defend well enough to get a draw but we conceded the goal from the kind of situation which we had defended so well in the first half. Celtic were the better side, you can’t say they didn’t deserve to win. But we know the tie is still alive. It will be a very different game in our stadium and on our astroturf pitch. We have only lost once in 25 games there and we will have the crowd on our side. So I’m totally satisfied with our chances of going through.
“I thought Mo Bangura was excellent for us tonight, he showed he is mentally strong after all the pressure Celtic put him under in the pre-game talk. For us, the decision was quite clear to play him because we want to win the tie. If Celtic had a player on loan from Chelsea, would they play him against them in the Champions League? Of course they would.”