Preview: Helsingborgs IF v Celtic
NEIL Lennon speaks about overcoming Celtic’s less-than-impressive away record in Europe, plus the key clashes and the probable teams.
For so long, it has been the monkey on Celtic’s back. Tonight, Neil Lennon hopes his players can prove they have freed themselves from the burden which has hampered their European ambitions for the best part of a decade.
It is, of course, an away record in Europe which has plagued successive Celtic managers and become an eye-watering statistic for the club’s supporters. Yet by securing only Celtic’s second away win in 34 attempts with the 2-0 success over HJK Helsinki in Finland two weeks ago, Lennon’s team placed themselves on the verge of a far more encouraging landmark.
If they avoid defeat against Helsinborgs in the first leg of their Champions League Play-off round tie this evening, Celtic will be unbeaten in four successive away games in continental competition, having drawn with both Rennes and Udinese at the end of their Europa League campaign last season.
Not since 2003, the year Lennon was a player in the side which reached the Uefa Cup Final, have Celtic gone four matches without defeat on the road in Europe. Matching that feat at the home of the Swedish champions would lend credibility to Lennon’s belief that his players are now ready to compete at Champions League level.
“We shouldn’t really talk about the away record any more,” said Lennon. “But we know the away record has been the exact opposite of our home record in Europe, which is so good. The players have conquered that a little bit with the last three results. We are looking for a similar performance here.
“They are well motivated and know what’s at stake. The way they were in Helsinki, I hadn’t seen them like that for quite a while in terms of focus. The performance in Helsinki was a very mature one, which we had been hoping for a wee while that the players could produce. I’m hoping they can produce more of the same here. There is a bit more belief among the players. I think they trust themselves a lot more now.
“There shouldn’t be any greater incentive to the players than to play in the Champions League anyway.
“The club hasn’t done it for four years. They are a talented bunch, but I want them to take the next step, enhance themselves as players and enhance their reputations.
“We went into the Helsinki game with trepidation. This one, we are more excited about. I’m probably a little bit more comfortable with it. But I know the significance of it, how big it is for the club.” As momentous as it would be for Celtic, both financially and in terms of prestige, Lennon is determined that his players do not become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the prize at hand and the widespread belief that they are favourites to defeat Helsingborgs.
“We do this all the time, we put everything in black and white,” added Lennon. “That just racks up the pressure needlessly. If they don’t get into the Champions League this year, then they’ve got another year to wait.
“This is not an ageing team. The way they have developed over the last couple of years, it’s looking good for them. We want to be there. It’s not a disaster if we don’t get there, although financially it would be a hit for the club. We’d still have the Europa League to play in and you never know where that can take you. But we all want the Champions League.
“You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourselves. I’m not building this tie up, I’m not saying ‘we are going to do it’. We’ll have to play at a very good level over the two legs. I don’t want to build it up too much, or we’ll end up with egg on our faces. I’ve got to temper the expectation, I don’t want us to fall flat on our faces. It’s a great opportunity for us all but I don’t want to put any extra pressure on the players. We use this word ‘should’ quite a lot. We ‘should’ do that and we ‘should’ do this. But it’s harder putting it into practice. The players have to go out with the same mindset they gave us in Helsinki. There was an extra urgency about them in Helsinki. It means a lot to them. I’m pleased the first leg is away from home. We’ll take any sort of result at all, because we always seem to play well at home in Europe. It’s important we get a good foothold in the game early on.”
Lennon looks likely to be able to call on Scott Brown, James Forrest, Gary Hooper and Paddy McCourt, who all missed Saturday’s 1-1 SPL draw at Ross County because of injury, while Thomas Rogne is expected to return to the back four in place of Kelvin Wilson.
“With those players coming back, I can feel a little bit more comfortable about this match,” said Lennon. “They will bring us freshness and extra quality as well. These games will give them an edge, which was certainly missing on Saturday. I can understand it a wee bit. We got a wee bit of a fright in that one and hopefully they now know they can’t afford to be as lacklustre going into any game, least of all in Europe.
“Some of them had one eye on tomorrow night, which is a mistake on their part, but we got through the game unscathed with a decent point in the end. The players ended the game on a high with that late goal.
“We are going out to try and win the game over here. We want to be a good unit defensively, but we have players from midfield to front who can score goals, particularly on the counter attack. We showed we can do that in Helsinki. We’ve got a good goalkeeper now, who makes big saves away from home. He has made a big difference to the team as well.
“The target is there for us, to reach the Champions League group stage, and it has been there since we reported back for pre-season training on 2 July. The rewards, in terms of bonuses and incentives, are all there for them. But just to sample it and taste it again would be great.”
Thomas Sorum v Charlie Mulgrew
Sorum has scored four goals in four Champions League games, and could be partnered up front with new loan signing Nikola Đurđic, with whom he formed a deadly partnership at Norwegian side FK Haugesund. Mulgrew will be looking to snuff out the threat from Helsingborgs’ danger man.
Alejandro Bedoya v Scott Brown
Bedoya, who scored on his debut for the Swedes after his move from Rangers, is expected to patrol the midfield for the Allsvenskan side. With Brown returning from injury, it could be a big ask, but the smart money would be on the Celtic captain utilising his knowledge of the American from last season’s Old Firm clashes.
Gary Hooper v Christoffer Andersson
Celtic’s relative lack of firepower was evident against Ross County on Saturday, with a late goal from Kris Commons giving them a share of the spoils. Neil Lennon will be looking to Hooper to spearhead the Parkhead side’s attack, but no-nonsense centre half Andersson - who played a big role in Sweden’s march to the Euro 2004 finals - will be a tough opponent.
Helsingborgs IF: D Andersson; Atta, C Andersson, Uronen, Baffo; Mahlangu, Nordmark, Bedoya, Bouaouzan; Sorum, Đurđic.
Celtic: Forster; Rogne, Izaguirre, Mulgrew, Lustig; Brown, Wanyama, Kayal, Ledley; Hooper, Samaras
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