HJK Helsinki 0 - 2 Celtic (agg. 1-4): Celtic ease to victory in Finland
CELTIC will take their seeded place in Friday’s Champions League play-off round draw in Nyon after rediscovering the sweet taste of victory away from home in Europe.
Joe Ledley’s precious goal midway through the second half finally submerged fears of another flop for the Scottish champions in these consistently fraught qualifying round ties, before Georgios Samaras struck with four minutes remaining to finish the job off with a flourish.
Neil Lennon’s team made much harder work of progress over the two legs than was necessary and had to endure several anxious moments last night, not least Victor Wanyama’s sending off in the 71st minute.
But the Celtic manager will be both gratified and relieved to have secured such a crucial success, one which guarantees the minimum reward of Europa League group stage football at Parkhead this season.
Concession of early goals has been an all too familiar factor in previous Celtic failures away from home in Europe and the need for defensive vigilance from the first whistle would certainly have been high on Lennon’s list of pre-match instructions to his players.
But there was immediate anxiety for the visitors and their travelling band of around 500 supporters in a corner of the picturesque and compact stadium behind Fraser Forster’s goalmouth. Inside the opening minute, Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre found himself under pressure and forced to concede a free-kick in a dangerous position with a foul on Sebastian Sorsa.
HJK’s first leg goalscorer Rasmus Schuller whipped the set piece in from the right but the Celtic back four, with Thomas Rogne and Charlie Mulgrew chosen as the central pairing, passed their first test as they cleared the ball to safety.
Celtic gradually began to come to terms with the underfoot conditions and their first period of sustained possession culminated in Scott Brown crafting an opening for Adam Matthews on the right. The marauding Welsh right-back’s fine cross was scrambled clear unconvincingly by HJK after the ball had initially seemed set to fall kindly for the lurking Gary Hooper.
The impression formed in the first leg of a distinct gap in technical quality between the sides in Celtic’s favour was soon being reinforced. Just as at Parkhead, however, Lennon’s men struggled to turn that superiority into a commanding advantage on the scoreboard. They missed a glorious opportunity to extend their aggregate lead in the 13th minute when a long through ball from Mulgrew was completely misjudged by the HJK defence. It left Brown in the clear with only goalkeeper Ville Wahlen to beat from around 12 yards. But he stabbed his right foot shot wide, a shocking miss which he could only hope would not come back to haunt him.
Celtic created another opening a minute later. Kris Commons spread a terrific crossfield pass to Georgios Samaras wide on the left and the Greek international cut inside and drove a fierce right foot shot narrowly wide of Wahlen’s left hand post.
The performance of Austrian referee Robert Schorgenhofer was a source of increasing frustration for the visitors as a series of debatable decisions went against them. Commons was booked for dissent when the official penalised Hooper for a foul on Timi Lahti when the offence clearly seemed to have been committed by the HJK defender. Lennon emerged from his technical area with his hands on his head as he signified his dismay.
There was a reminder to Celtic of the precarious nature of the tie when Sorsa burst clear down the right in a rare raid by HJK. His cross eluded the Celtic defence to pick out Demba Savage at the back post but the Gambian winger completely missed the ball with a fresh air swipe.
Celtic’s unhappiness with the referee was unabated, Brown reacting petulantly when Schuller was not penalised for a hefty challenge on him. Brown refused to accept Schuller’s offer of a handshake as he got up and then remonstrated with Schorgenhofer who simply waved him away.
The best response Celtic could make would be the goal they needed to strengthen their hold on the tie but they missed another chance just before half-time, Hooper taking the ball too wide of goal after he had been set free by a Commons pass.
Celtic were almost caught cold at the start of the second half when HJK, imbued by a fresh sense of ambition, launched a rapid raid down the left to which the visitors’ defence reacted slowly. Joel Pohjanpalo swept the ball across the face of the penalty area to the unmarked Sorsa who seemed certain to score but Celtic were indebted to Forster who managed to get the slightest of touches on the low shot to divert it inches wide for a corner.
Mulgrew and Wanyama were both booked in quick succession, decisions which again infuriated Celtic. It was a far more even contest now, HJK becoming a more sustained and threatening force in attack, and there was another scare for Celtic in the 62nd minute. Sebastian Mannstrom’s corner from the left found Mathias Lindstrom unmarked and his downward header was fumbled wide unconvincingly by Forster. But just as a growing sense of impending woe seemed to be surrounding Celtic, they made the breakthrough which brought the next round of the Champions League into much sharper focus. The goal owed much to the enterprise of Mulgrew who brought the ball out from defence and continued with a powerful run down the right wing which drew several HJK players out of position. Mulgrew delivered a fine cross to the back post where Ledley, from little more than a yard out, chested the ball
beyond the helpless Wallen.
Celtic finally appeared to be in firm control of the tie but there was fresh hope for HJK with Wanyama’s dismissal with 19 minutes remaining, the midfielder collecting his second caution of the night for a foul on Vayrynen.
HJK were unable to capitalise on the situation, however, and Celtic ended all doubts about the outcome in the 86th minute when Ledley broke on the left and set up Samaras for a firm right foot finish from around ten yards.
HJK Helsinki: Wallen, Sorsa, Lindstrom, Lahti, Sumusalo; Perovuo (Sadik 70); Mannstrom, Vayrynen, Schuller, Savage; Phjanpalo (Pelvas 78). Subs not used: Sahlgren, Kansikas, Okkonen, Hakanpaa, Zeneli.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Rogne, Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Brown, Wanyama, Ledley, Samaras (Murphy 88); Commons (Forrest 74); Hooper (Kayal 74). Subs not used: Zaluska, Stokes, McCourt, Lustig.
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