Lennon admits ‘release of pressure’ after Celtic negotiate Helsinki clash
NEIL Lennon last night savoured a significant personal milestone in his managerial career which he revealed has consumed him with anxiety since the end of last season.
Celtic defeated HJK Helsinki 2-0 in Finland to complete a 4-1 aggregate triumph in their Champions League third qualifying round tie. Lennon’s men will be seeded for tomorrow’s play-off round draw, and will face one of five teams from Helsingborgs of Sweden, Cluj of Romania, Maribor of Slovenia, Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel or AEL Limassol of Cyprus. Victory will take them into the Champions League group stage, while they are guaranteed a Europa League campaign if they lose.
For manager Lennon, it was the first time he has overseen a two-legged victory in a European tie and he made no qualms about how important it was to his own pride and credibility.
“Psychologically for me, it is big because we haven’t got through these ties in the last couple of years,” said Lennon. “We have built a good, vibrant, young team here and they have delivered tonight. They answered a lot of questions.
“It was important to win this tie for my own sanity. I’ve been agonising over it for a long time, ever since we picked up the SPL trophy. I’ve been in a wee bubble for the last six or seven weeks, just thinking about it. So it’s a big relief and a big release of pressure.
“I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m thrilled for the players, for the backroom team, for the supporters and the club. It’s a step in the right direction and a huge win in the context of what we have been through in the past four or five weeks preparing for this tie. The players did the business and it’s a huge win for the club.
“There was a huge amount of pressure on us. These games are hugely unfair on Scottish teams at this time of year. They are really tough games. But this win gives us European football until December at least and that’s what we really wanted out of the tie. We’ll see what Friday brings but we are going to enjoy tonight and the next couple of days.”
Celtic missed good chances to put the tie to bed before half-time and endured several moments of concern when HJK threatened to take the lead at the start of the second half, before goals from Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras won it. “We could have been a couple of goals up before the break,” added Lennon. “The important thing was could we score the first goal to put us in the driving seat. We weathered a storm for ten or 15 minutes after half-time and then went on to score two wonderful goals on the counter attack which we are always capable of doing. At 0-0, the tie was still well in the balance. We had good chances in the first half which we should have put away. So there is always a concern. Victor Wanyama had a header blocked early in the second half, which looked like handball from where I was. Fraser Forster then made a good save from Sebastian Sorsa.
“But I couldn’t be more proud of the players. This is a very difficult place to come at any time, HJK were unbeaten at home for a long time. So for us to come here and play as well as that is terrific. We will see what the draw brings. We are not getting carried away but this gives the players a huge shot in the arm.”
Lennon’s night was slightly soured by the dismissal of Wanyama with 19 minutes remaining for a second bookable offence. The Kenyan midfielder will now miss the first leg of Celtic’s play-off round tie. Austrian referee Robert Schorgenhofer also booked another four Celtic players, leaving Lennon bemused. “I don’t want to take the gloss off the night but to say the referee was inconsistent would be an understatement,” said Lennon. “It seems to me at times that we play a different game on the continent than we do in Britain.”
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