Helsinki grab away goal but Neil Lennon satisfied at ‘superb’ Celtic showing
CELTIC manager Neil Lennon is confident his team can overcome their infamous travel sickness in Europe to secure a place in the play-off round of the Champions League next week.
Despite the slender nature of last night’s 2-1 win over HJK Helsinki at Celtic Park, which saw the Scottish champions recover from the loss of an away goal to take a lead into the second leg of the third qualifying round tie in the Finnish capital next Wednesday, Lennon was both satisfied and encouraged by the outcome.
Celtic’s wretched away record in Europe, with just one win and 25 defeats from their last 33 fixtures, will cast doubt in many minds over their prospects of completing the job and avoiding a drop into the Europa League.
But Lennon believes Celtic are better equipped to cope with the task in hand and remain on course to reach the lucrative group stage of the Champions League.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” said Lennon. “I’m delighted. It’s a huge improvement on where we were this time last year. HJK can count themselves pretty fortunate that they are only 2-1 behind.
“We now have another week to get ready for the return and the players will benefit from that game tonight. I thought the tempo of our play was good and some of our football was superb against a team who just wanted to sit in and try to counter-attack. HJK will think they have got a good result but I’ve seen enough to think there is plenty of scope for us in the second leg as well. We showed brilliant character after going a goal down, because the game could have got away from us at that stage. The players’ energy levels could have sagged. But such is the work they have put in, they clawed their way back into it brilliantly.
“With better luck or better finishing, whatever you want to call it, we could have won more comfortably. The scoreline doesn’t reflect the performance, but sometimes that happens in football.
“We want European football badly here and the players showed how committed they are to that. I’m not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses. I know I look at it from a different perspective sometimes, but I am pleased with the performance tonight. It is a marked improvement on last season.
“Psychologically, a third goal would have given us more of a cushion. But even at 3-1, the tie would still have been in the balance. We are capable of scoring away from home in Europe, we proved that last year. We will maybe have to do it again next Wednesday night. Our away record in Europe, as we all know, is not the best. Next week would be a good time to start improving on that.”
Lennon was philosophical about the slack play from his side which allowed Rasmus Schuller to put HJK ahead at the start of the second half, before Celtic hit back quickly with goals from Gary Hooper and Charlie Mulgrew.
“That happens, you can’t have the perfect game,” he shrugged. “Fraser Forster saved their player’s initial shot but it has ricocheted off Victor Wanyama for them to score. The disappointing thing for me was that it came from losing the ball in our attacking half. They got forward too easily for my liking. I’d hardly taken my seat at the start of the second half.
“But overall, I can’t be overly critical of the team. For our first competitive game of the season, it was an excellent performance.”
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