Glenn Gibbons: Swedes would have been easy in O’Neill era

ONLY those with a cross-eyed view of reality would make any attempt to belittle Celtic’s 2-0 victory in Helsingborgs, but surely even the club’s most redoubtable apologist would not deny that the significance of the result was greatly exaggerated by the general mediocrity of the performance from which it sprang.

Before any self-styled heroes of the resistance movement leap in to condemn this soberly-considered criticism, perhaps they could dwell for a moment on how genuine stars of Celtic’s most recent golden age (that is, the Martin O’Neill years) must have felt while watching the present-day representatives return victorious from a foreign field. It was, after all, the kind of distinction they themselves were so often denied.

Even the most distinguished of former players tend not to begrudge their less talented successors whatever rewards come their way, but it must have been extremely difficult for watching members of O’Neill’s brigade not to recall some of the colossal performances they delivered against the most formidable opponents on the continent, only to return empty-handed.

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There was certainly no shortage of the old guard taking in the action. Henrik Larsson himself was at the match, as were, of course, Neil Lennon and Johan Mjallby in their roles of manager and coach, while Chris Sutton, conscripted for pundit duty, observed with typical insight and candour from his chair in the STV studio.

Lennon and Mjallby would, naturally, be too preoccupied with the business of the night to allow their concentration to wander, but Larsson, Sutton and any of the others looking in might easily have strayed into recollections of towering performances away to such reputable rivals as Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Lyon which still ended in defeat.

It was on displays such as these that Celtic’s reputation as weak-kneed, lily-livered failures on the road in the Champions League was built. Scrutinising the Helsingborgs match, it must have been impossible for Larsson, Sutton and Co not to have concluded that even one of their lesser performances would have been enough to rout the distinctly moderate Swedes without a moment of discomfort.

Instead, they saw a Celtic side that was pedestrian and unimposing in midfield and virtually paralysed by anxiety and uncertainty in defence somehow achieve a clean sheet while scoring two of their own.

Fraser Forster’s deeply impressive goalkeeping speaks of a player of extraordinary improvement through the maturing process, while the shocking irresponsibility of Emilio Izaguirre – insistent on playing himself into difficulties in the vicinity of his own goal – suggests a defender who has gone backwards and an ego that has far outgrown the ‘talent’ that gave it birth.

Sutton was asked immediately after the match if the result ‘was about right’. His answer, typically, took no prisoners: “I’m not so sure it was about right,” he said, “but it was a fantastic result. Helsingborgs had a lot of chances and Fraser Forster was fantastic in the Celtic goal.”

Like Sutton and others, Lennon will be perfectly aware of the team’s flaws and vulnerabilities. As he showed in midweek when preparing fans for the disappointment of not being given money from the transfer of Ki Sung-Yeung, he is also cute enough to ensure that would-be grumblers among supporters are forcefully reminded that, for Celtic these days, merely reaching the Champions League group stage is the limit of the dream.