Neil Lennon saluted Kelvin Wilson last night after Celtic succeeded in shutting out Elfsborg to secure a place in the Champions League play-off round.
Wilson’s parting gift to Celtic was a priceless one after the centre-half helped the team to a scoreless draw in Sweden in his last match for the club before joining Nottingham Forest in a £2.5 million deal.
He can leave “with his head held very, very high,” said Lennon, after the 0-0 result gave Celtic a 1-0 aggregate win. They now take their place in tomorrow’s draw as they seek to qualify for the Champions League group stage for the second successive season.
The night was not without its fraught moments, conceded the manager afterwards. Some had misgivings about Wilson’s inclusion just hours after it had become clear that he was set to return to Forest, the club he left in 2011 to join Celtic. However, the centre-half posted a typically solid performance next to the less assured Efe Ambrose at the heart of the Celtic defence.
Fears that on-loan Elfsborg striker Mo Bangura might play a significant part in the tie and make Celtic pay for not including a stipulation that he cannot play against his parent club proved wide of the mark in the end.
He did come close with one overhead kick early in the game while he also sent a header over from a good position. However, most of his good work was carried out away from the box as Celtic snuffed out the danger,
although it was never straightforward on an artificial surface that Lennon admitted had caused his players more problems than he had envisaged.
Celtic will now have to learn to live without Wilson, who will tie-up his transfer before the weekend. “I think he will be away over the next couple of days,” said Lennon.
“If he is away he can go with his head held very, very high,” he added. “I thought he was fantastic for us tonight and he’ll be a huge miss. I don’t think the two clubs are far away [from an agreement over a fee].
“We chatted to Kelvin beforehand,” he added. “He was in the right frame of mind to play. He didn’t want to let the team down and he certainly didn’t. I thought he was awesome.”
Celtic now have some breathing space to consider making moves to re-strengthen the squad. “It’s a priority to get a few players in before the next tie and we are going to work at that,” said Lennon. “We are threadbare and the players were running on empty. It’s been a really tough start, these qualifiers normally are.
“But we have two games to go to make the big one and we’ll wait and see what the draw brings.”
Lennon admitted that Celtic had not been at their best in Boras, where the artificial surface and awkward, hard-working opponents combined to make it a testing evening for the visitors. Celtic should have made life easier for themselves by scoring early in the match but Georgios Samaras missed a good chance with a header. Joe Ledley also saw a shot well saved by Kevin Stuhr-Ellegaard although the midfielder looked to have been pulled back while in the process of shooting.
“It was what I expected – a tough game,” said Lennon. “We’ve got to give an enormous amount of credit to Elfsborg, who gave everything. I thought we should have had the tie wrapped up, though, after 15 minutes. Samaras had a header that we would have expected him to score or at least get on target.
“Then the keeper made a fantastic save from Joe. We only needed one goal to really burst Elfsborg’s enthuasiam.
“But then we became a little bit scrappy. Sammy [Samaras] wasn’t anywhere near 100 per cent fit but he gave us everything tonight. With a bit more quality in the final third we might have picked them off towards the end. But my back four, particularly my two centre halves, were wonderful tonight. They restricted Elfsborg to minimal chances.
“We will get better. We know that. We are only one game into our domestic season. This result buys us a bit of time now – it’s ten or 12 days before the next round. And hopefully [Virgil] Van Dijk and [Derk] Boerrigter will be fit for the [play-off] tie.
“But this was a huge result tonight. It was nerve-wracking and we’re really pleased to have prevailed.”
Lennon stressed that he did not want to see another artificial pitch for a very long time. Celtic struggled to keep possession on the surface that had been heavily watered before kick-off, just as Elfsborg manager Jorgen Lennartsson had promised.
“It affected us probably more than we envisaged,” admitted Lennon, who pointed out that the pitch was far from flat. “It’s not your normal astroturf pitch. It was quite thick and there is a camber that runs across it. Some of the guys struggled a bit with it balance wise. But we had to put up with it. I just hope I don’t see another astroturf pitch for an awful long time now.
He admitted the pressure had got to him on this trip, after the sale of key players and injuries disrupted preparations. Lennon pursued a theme that he had discussed in detail on the eve of the match. “All day has been fraught,” he said with reference to the pressure he has been operating under.
“I think we’ve now guaranteed European football [Celtic drop into the Europa League group stage if they lose in the play-off round] so that’s a step in the right direction anyway.”
Elfsborg boss Jorgen Lennartsson conceded that the best side over the two games went through. He said: “We are disappointed of course, we were the better team in this game. We were defensively good and we created some chances but we didn’t have the quality in the final third to score.
“We pushed them all the way but of course Celtic were the better side in the first game and if you take the two games together, they deserved to go through.”