Helsinki’s plastic pitch a headache as Neil Lennon eyes Euro progress
CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has expressed his concern over the artificial playing surface which will host his team’s bid for Champions League progress in Finland tonight and insists such pitches should be banned from European club competition.
Lennon, who has admitted to feeling nervous about the crucial second leg of Celtic’s third qualifying round tie against HJK Helsinki, says the Fifa-approved pitch at the Sonera Stadium will provide no mitigation for his players if they fail to reach Friday’s Play-off round draw in Europe’s elite tournament.
But Lennon has no doubt that Finnish champions HJK, unbeaten at home in domestic football for the past two years, benefit significantly from their familiarity with a surface upon which they earned a shock 2-0 Europa League win over Schalke 04 last season.
Celtic take a precarious 2-1 lead into tonight’s match, the outcome of which will have a major bearing on how Lennon’s squad is shaped in the remaining weeks of the transfer window. He was unequivocal when asked if such important European fixtures should be allowed to take place on artificial pitches.
“No, they shouldn’t,” said Lennon. “I don’t agree with them. Football should be played on grass, especially at this level. I don’t want to make it as an excuse but there’s no doubt it gives HJK an advantage because they are used to playing on it.
“It is an advantage for any team who are used to playing on it. It will give them some sort of advantage but we can’t use that as an excuse. Helsinki have two good wide players and they pass the ball quite well, very quickly on this surface. They are used to the atmosphere and the way the ball rolls. It sits up at times, it’s not as quick as artificial pitches I’ve seen before.
“I remember playing on the one at Dunfermline a few years ago. They have come on a long, long way since then. They are a lot better but they are still not my cup of tea. But this is the reality of it and we have to accept it and just make sure we get through.”
Celtic arrived in overcast but dry conditions yesterday in Helsinki, although rain is forecast ahead of kick-off which could have a bearing on the slickness of the pitch. Lennon may also request that it is watered.
“It’s up to both teams to decide if they want the pitch watered or not,” he said. “Once we’ve had a good look at the pitch we’ll decide how we feel about it then there will be a meeting in the morning.
“I’ve heard conflicting stories about it. When I spoke to the guys from Iceland, who played HJK in the previous round, they said the pitch was good, but then I’ve heard other stories that it’s not so good. We won’t know until we’ve had a feel of it ourselves.
“Ideally I think we’d want surface water on it, just to make it slicker and quicker, but I don’t know yet. If we want it watered we can ask for that, and as long as both teams agree then it’s fine.”
With progress to the group stage of the Champions League worth a minimum of around £9 million to Celtic, Lennon does not shy away from the critical nature of tonight’s contest. If Celtic drop into the far-less lucrative
Europa League, then English Premier League clubs eyeing the situation of players such as Ki Sung Yueng, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper are likely to pursue their interest.
But if Lennon can guide the Scottish champions into the Champions League group phase for the first time in four years, he can anticipate holding onto his key men and possibly also strengthening his squad.
“It’s all a little bit up in the air at the minute,
because we don’t know what’s happening,” added Lennon. “A lot will depend on whether we can progress in terms of finances. So a lot hinges on tomorrow night. Because it has come so early in the season just makes it a little bit more difficult.
“It’s an important game for all us. It’s something we have all worked hard towards for the last month or so. While I’m excited about it, I’m also a little bit nervous about it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But I’m very, very focused and I think the players will be as well.
“It’s a big responsibility, but we all want it for the club first of all and for the supporters.
“I would like it for the players, because I think we are good enough to play at that level if we can keep that core of the squad together for the time being.”
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