Champions League: Celtic seek extended European run
Ousting Helsinki will guarantee Celtic eight more matches in Europe, writes Andrew Smith
IT isn’t a European tie Celtic face on Wednesday: it is an eight-game, six-month pursuit. For if Neil Lennon’s side do enough against HJK Helsinki in the Finnish capital to progress to the play-off round of the Champions League qualifiers then at the very least they will be guaranteed a berth in the Europa League group stages. No wonder Lennon says that the magnitude of this decider has been “at the forefront” of his mind since May.
What happens at the Sonera Stadium this week will also have profound implications for Lennon’s hope of making any signings this summer. If Celtic’s 2-1 home win over Helsinki does not provide the springboard for them to move within one tie of competing in the Champions League proper for the first time in four years, the club will have neither the revenue injection nor inclination to sanction the recruitment of a centre-back and centre-forward, as their manager desires. Celtic do not need to strengthen their squad to dominate domestically. Moreover, if they only have the bread and butter football to look forward to after Helsinki, the entire Scottish game is likely to be robbed of even the meagrest rations of glamour this season.
Lennon is well aware of all that, just as he knows his development as a manager will be affected by how his side perform in three days’ time. The Finns were well beaten in Glasgow, despite the narrow margin of victory. They didn’t appear a side who should unduly trouble a Celtic in the stride of their season, even if they can boast a 2-0 victory at home to Schalke last year and have an “advantage”, according to the Celtic manager, because they play on a plastic pitch.
But Celtic’s attempts to make it through a two-legged European tie in recent years have foundered on too many bad nights away from home to take anything for granted.
Celtic have only qualified for the Champions League three times from seven attempts. Lennon has yet to win a knock-out tie on the pitch, a three-game run of thumpings away to Utrecht and Braga ending only by courtesy of Swiss side Sion playing ineligible players. Indeed, of the past 33 teams Celtic have faced in Europe, they have only avoided defeat against five of them, the list of those who have posted game wins against them including such luminaries as Aalborg, FK Teplice and Artmedia Bratislava. More encouraging, though, is that two of those unable to get the better of Celtic were Udinese and Rennes in the Europa League last year.
“The game is not straightforward with our away record. We are very unpredictable away from home,” says Lennon. Yet with the 2-0 win away to Dynamo Moscow in 2009 the club’s only away win in 33 attempts, Celtic seem all too predictable.
“Our players have had a good look at them [Helsinki], though,” says Lennon. “We did create a lot of chances. If we had been a bit sharper in front of goal we could have won by more. The one-goal lead gives us something to hold on to and maybe more. We had good results away from home against Rennes and Udinese [both 1-1] and I think we’ll need to play as well as that, if not better. We’ve had the ties against Braga, Utrecht and Sion and I felt there was significant improvement in that first game from the home games against them. Now I’m looking for more of the same. There is a lot resting on Wednesday, for me personally to take the team forward, and for the players to enhance their season.”
Lennon doesn’t seem overly concerned about so much resting on his players’ ability to master an unfamiliar plastic pitch. He has been thwarted in his hope of taking them to Finland a day early to give them as much time as possible to familiarise themselves with the conditions, but will have the squad train on the astro turf at Lennoxtown tomorrow to give them a feel for what is to come in Helsinki. The synthetic surface could have a bearing on his tactics and team selection, but he knows Celtic aren’t being asked to play on the surface of the moon.
“We’ll train there on Tuesday and try to get used to it as quickly as possible,” he says. “The surface is as close to grass as you can get. I spoke to a few of the representatives from Reykjavik after their game on it [when they lost 7-0] and they said the pitch was OK.”
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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