Celtic v HJK Helsinki: Lennon prepared for fight against ‘hard to break down’ Helsinki
THE MANNER in which his side mastered Internazionale for long spells in yesterday’s 1-1 draw could have left Neil Lennon entitled to breathe a little easier about the impeding confrontation with HJK Helsinki.
A friendly against a grandee club, even one that won the Champions League only two years ago, doesn’t bear comparison with playing a side in mid-season for a place in the group stages of the competition for the Celtic manager, though.
Lennon watched Helsinki secure a 2-1 win in Reykjavik on Tuesday night, a result that earned them a 9-1 aggregate victory over their fellow Nordic side and a third qualifying tie against the Scottish champions. Celtic coach Gary Parker was scheduled to provide further information on the opposition at Celtic Park by watching them in league action against FC Honka, but Lennon has seen enough to know his team’s competitive opener could cause them problems.
“We worked on certain things at training on Friday, trying to become tighter as a unit following the Ajax game,” he said. “We felt that [4-0 defeat] wasn’t acceptable and worked hard on things throughout the week. But listen, the Inter result isn’t going to be a major pointer towards Wednesday because that game is going to be a different animal. They’ll have a different mentality coming here but to get our lads up to speed was the most important thing. We look as though we’re playing the game at a good pace now.”
As do Antti Muurinen’s men, Lennon can now testify from watching them first hand. The more one-eyed Celtic supporters have a notion that their team can effectively clinch the Helsinki tie by ensuring they are on the receiving end of the sort of scoreline they dished out to the Icelanders last week, which follows up a 12-0 win over Bangor City in Europe last season. Add to these results the fact that the Finns beat Schalke on their patch 2-0 last season in the Europa League qualifiers – a deficit the Germans subsequently overturned – and Lennon’s caution becomes understandable.
“I’d like to win the game and win it by as many goals as possible. But having watched Helsinski we know it’s going to be a hard game, a really hard game,” Lennon said. “They have a bit of pace in their team, particularly in the wide areas, with some very fit players who know their way around the pitch. I think they’re going to be hard to break down but the onus is on us to try and do that. We just need to be patient but physically we’re in good condition now and the football is looking better. I think we’re ready.”
Helsinki will be as ready as they will ever be, having played 20 league games in their national championship, which they appear on course to win for the fourth consecutive season. Arriving at any worthwhile judgements on the challenge to Celtic’s Champions League hopes that they will present is only going to be possible come Wednesday night. The Finns rank below Motherwell in the terms of their individual UEFA coefficient. Countering that, Helsinki were ahead of Celtic in qualifying for the group stages of the competition. They did so in 1998-99 under their current coach, making Muurinen the only man to take a Finnish team into the competition proper.
Muurinen is a canny individual who makes Helsinki a team greater than the sum of their parts, something perhaps best highlighted by the scoring form he elicits from Juho Makela. The 29-year-old striker is now in his third spell at the club, and sustaining a near one-in-two scoring ratio, with a hat-trick against Reykjavik demonstrating he is in good fettle presently. He never seemed so in an ill-fated spell with Hearts, however. He did score a hat-trick, granted, against Alloa in the League Cup, but otherwise he netted only twice in 22 appearances. Moreover, despite the fact he debuted for the national side eight years ago, he has only earned a further seven caps. Celtic should have enough to cope with the threat of Makela and his team-mates but there have been too many qualifying calamities from Scottish champions in the past two decades to state such a case with any conviction.
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