Paatelainen fears Pukki’s Celtic future in balance

Teemu Pukki has scored just three goals for Celtic in 23 games this season. Picture: SNS
Teemu Pukki has scored just three goals for Celtic in 23 games this season. Picture: SNS
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Mixu Paatelainen yesterday expressed hope that Teemu Pukki will start to score goals regularly in Scotland. However, the Finland manager has also warned his international striker that you don’t tend to be given a lot of time to prove yourself at a club such as Celtic.

With Pukki taking time to find his feet in Scotland, Paatelainen is sympathetic – to an extent. He, too, came to Scotland early in his career, although he accepts he was not operating under the same intense scrutiny Pukki must cope with in Glasgow. However, he did have the harsh taskmaster that is Jim McLean to impress as he sought to begin a new life in Dundee. While Pukki is 23 years old, Paatelainen was only a teenager when he arrived at Dundee United from Valkeakosken Haka in October 1987.

Perhaps this is why Paatelainen sounded slightly concerned that Pukki has yet to convince the Celtic supporters that he is worth persevering with. He is also aware that the player’s quiet character could be a further stumbling block. Sometimes strikers can emerge from difficult spells through sheer force of personality. Paatelainen admits this might not be the case with Pukki. While the player’s diffidence is an appealing trait, it is not particularly helpful when he needs to go to the extreme of pushing team-mates out of the way in order to score.

“He is a quiet boy and he will never be a ringleader in the dressing room,” said Paatelainen. “But he will come out more from his shell.”

The former Kilmarnock and Hibs manager based this prediction on what he has seen from Pukki while with the Finnish national team. Paatelainen has discovered that making a slow start is a trend in Pukki’s career to date.

“The same thing happened with the national team,” reflected Paatelainen. “When he came into the set-up with me he was very quiet and very introverted. I didn’t see him smile too much and on the pitch he wasn’t producing it. I was thinking ‘what is going on here?’ because I had seen him score fantastic goals at HJK Helsinki.

“He did it for Schalke in Euro-pean competition too so I knew he could do it. I looked back at his history and when he came back to Helsinki from Sevilla again he had a quiet spell to begin with. It is like the same kind of pattern every time he changes environment. But at top-level football like with Celtic you are not given time. You are pushed into the sidelines.

“I have spoken to him a little bit and there has been a couple of text messages,” Paatelainen added. “But no heavy stuff. That is down to Celtic, the coaching staff and Neil Lennon to coach him. He is in good hands.”

Paatelainen certainly has no complaints with the Celtic manager’s treatment of the player. “I must tip my hat to Neil Lennon and how patient he has been with him,” said the Finn, who was at Hampden Park yesterday speaking to coaches at a Pro-Licence event as part of the Scottish Football Association coach education programme.

“He [Lennon] has given him time, and he understands the personality but at the top level, how much time are you given?”

Perhaps this question formed one of the modules that the budding coaches engaged with yesterday. If a player has been signed with great hopes and then fails to capture the heights, how long should you allow him to find his feet? It is a dilemma, certainly. Lennon cannot be criticised for failing to hand Pukki chances – he has played 23 times, including 14 starts, and scored just three goals. Like Paatelainen for Dundee United, Pukki scored on his debut for Celtic. However, he has not built on this positive first impression in the way Paatelainen managed at United, where he scored 11 goals in 22 appearances in his first season.

“It has been a sticky start for Teemu,” acknowledged Paat-elainen. “But I have seen him and I know he has the attributes and the ability. Obviously there are great demands at Celtic and he hasn’t scored too many goals yet. He can score but how long will it take to start producing?”

Pukki’s last goal was a winning strike against Hibs in mid-December, and it was hoped that this would help kick-start his career at Parkhead. He had not scored since September prior to this. With Lennon now credited with an interest in Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher, amongst others, Pukki’s chance might have gone already.

“Even if one or two players leave in January I’m sure they will bring in other excellent strikers so competition will never go away,” said Paatelainen. “He has been quiet so far and it remains to be seen whether he will produce or not.”

It is not the ringing endorsement one might have expected from Paatelainen, although he has no complaints about Pukki’s form with Finland, for whom he is a regular starter. He has scored six times in 28 caps when playing alongside the likes of Roman Eremenko and Alexander Ring, the Kaiserslautern player who has also been linked with Celtic. “We play to his strengths,” said Paatelainen. “He is good turning with the ball, and he is good running behind the line which he hasn’t done too much with Celtic. His role with our set-up is something that I believe suits him. But he can also play a little bit deeper, in the No 10 position, because of his technical ability.

“He is not physically strong – if someone is against him then he can be pushed to the side, but he can link and he can make things happen.”

Paatelainen wondered whether Pukki’s willingness to work for the team might be harming his chances of finding the net. “It gets him into situations and places where he can’t score,” he said. “And obviously if he wants to be a goalscorer he has to think about himself also – think about the team, but in certain situations don’t get attracted towards the ball as much and pull away a bit.

“The way he handles this pressure will be telling,” added Paatelainen. “When he gets his chance I am sure a lot of eyes will be on him.”

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