Celtic 2 - 1 HJK Helsinki: Celtic edge to victory but away goal puts tie on knife edge
CELTIC are bracing themselves for a nerve-wracking trip to Finland next week as they seek to extend their Champions League campaign beyond the qualifying rounds for the first time in four years.
Scorers: Celtic - Hooper (54), Mulgrew (61); HJK Helsinki: Schuller (47) Attendance: 52,859
Neil Lennon endured a fraught 90 minutes at Celtic Park last night which at least saw
his players react with considerable resilience to falling behind to Rasmus Schuller’s goal for HJK Helsinki at the start of the second half. Strikes from Gary Hooper and Charlie Mulgrew ensured Celtic will head into next Wednesday’s second leg in a winning position, but the concession of an away goal may yet prove a fatal wound.
It should have been so much more comfortable for Celtic, who failed to capitalise on lengthy spells of dominance against their well drilled but unremarkable opponents. As it is, Lennon’s attempt to win a two-legged tie as Celtic manager for the first time remains firmly in the balance. Pre-match observations that the greatest danger to Celtic would be the superior match sharpness of the Finnish champions, currently midway through their domestic season, did not bear up to early scrutiny as Lennon’s men made by far
the more focused and vibrant start. The home fans, who had cheered fellow Celtic supporter Michael Jamieson’s silver medal Olympic swim which was shown on the giant screens inside the stadium just before kick-off, were encouraged by what they saw from their team, if understandably anxious over the failure to convert the early domination of possession and territory into goals.
Celtic fashioned their first opportunity straight from kick-off, Adam Matthews’ long ball flicked on by Georgios Samaras into the path of Gary Hooper who sprinted beyond a static HJK defence into the penalty area. But the English striker took the ball a fraction too wide as he tried to go round goalkeeper Ville Wallen and could only smash his shot into the outside netting. Kris Commons, having recovered in time from the ankle injury sustained in Saturday’s friendly against Inter Milan, was handed a floating role behind Hooper in a fluid 4-4-1-1 formation which saw Samaras and James Forrest given licence to push forward either side of central midfield duo Scott Brown and Joe Ledley.
There was purpose and pace to Celtic’s work in the opening stages, the visitors appearing
laboured and disjointed. Yet HJK’s inability to piece any worthwhile sequences of passing football together during this period led to them causing a moment of panic in the Celtic defence.
Joel Peruovuo resorted to a long ball which appeared harmless enough as Juho Makela, the former Hearts striker, chased it towards the corner of the penalty area. Victor Wanyama, chosen in central defence alongside Charlie Mulgrew for Celtic, opted to make a risky and needless challenge which saw Makela grounded and appealing for a spot-kick. Fortunately for
Wanyama, the Czech referee saw nothing amiss.
Celtic were quickly back
on the front foot with Forrest causing HJK left-back Mikko Sumusalo considerable grief whenever the opportunity arose. One surging run from the young Scotland winger saw him cut the ball back to the edge of the penalty area where both Hooper and Commons took fresh air swipes at it before Ledley’s mis-hit shot slithered just wide of the target. Ledley came closer in the 22nd minute when he latched onto Wanyama’s knockdown on the edge of the penalty area and this time struck his shot much more cleanly. But HJK captain Wallen was equal to it, diving to his left to turn the ball behind for a corner.
With Celtic unable to fully sustain their initial momentum, HJK began to creep into the contest as an attacking force and it required a tremendously alert challenge from Matthews to deny the visitors’ Gambian winger Demba Savage a clear shot at goal from no more than 10 yards out. Celtic had a penalty claim in the 28th minute, skipper Brown going down under Mika Vayrynen challenge, but the Czech official again waved play on. Concern among the home fans increased when Fraser Forster was forced into his first save of the night, the giant Englishman stretching to his right to keep out Peruvuo’s driven low shot from around 25 yards.
Early impressions of HJK had been misleading and they grew in both confidence and ambition as the evening progressed. Less than two minutes into the second half, they took advantage of some less than convincing Celtic defending to plunder a precious away goal. Sebastian Mannstrom, who had been growing in influence on the right flank for the Finns, surged past Emilio Izaguirre with ease and found Schuller inside the penalty area. The forward’s first shot was smartly saved by the boot of Forster but the Celtic goalkeeper was left helpless when Schuller reacted impressively to meet the rebound with a controlled finish from a tight angle. The sense of dismay around Celtic Park was almost palpable but, to their credit, the home players did not allow themselves to be subdued by the setback. They almost equalised
immediately, Commons’ shot from 20 yards striking Wallen’s right-hand post and then rebounding off the back of the goalkeeper’s head to safety.
The leveller was only delayed until the 54th minute, Celtic finally combining penetration with good finishing. Commons set Samaras free down the left and the Greek swept the ball low across the face of the HJK six-yard box to provide Hooper with a simple tap-in.
HJK then committed what many coaches regard as a basic error, making a substitution just as they conceded a corner kick six minutes later. Makela, whose height had been effective at set pieces, was replaced by Berat Sandik.
The replacement was still making his way towards the penalty area when Commons swept over the corner from the right and Mulgrew found himself completely unmarked to plant a firm header beyond Wallen from close range.
As gratified as Lennon was by the manner in which his team had responded to going behind, he recognised that a 2-1 lead left the tie firmly in the balance ahead of the return leg. Anthony Stokes replaced Commons as the Celtic manager re-inforced his firepower in the quest to increase their advantage in the closing stages.
But a third goal proved elusive, the closest Celtic came being a fierce drive from captain Brown which Wallen did well to touch wide. Celtic will not
head across the North Sea without optimism next week but they will also do with justifiable
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Wanyama, Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Forrest, Brown, Ledley, Samaras (Lustig 87); Commons (Stokes 65); Hooper (McCourt 87). Subs not used: Zaluska, Kayal, Rogne, F Twardzik.
HJK Helsinki: Wallen, Sorsa, Lindstrom, Lahti, Sumusalo; Perovuo; Mannstrom, Vayrynen (Okkonen 74), Schuller (Phjanpalo 84), Savage; Makela (Sadik 60). Subs not used: Sahlgren, Kansikas, Hakanpaa, Pelvas.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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