THE resolute refusal of Neil Lennon to make any assumptions about Celtic’s projected progress into the group stage of the Champions League this week is understandable, given its massive significance to the status of both his club and his own managerial reputation.
No coach or manager, fully appreciating the vagaries of football, would easily be tempted to declare publicly that a job had been done at the halfway stage of a two-legged tie. Even with a propitious 2-0 lead from last Tuesday’s opening 90 minutes of the Play-off round tie in Sweden, Lennon is taking nothing for granted ahead of Wednesday’s return against Helsingborgs at Celtic Park.
But if Lennon’s stance is only natural, it was more surprising to absorb the views of both Celtic supporters and other football correspondents while on the club’s charter flight home from Sweden last week. There was very little in the way of bullishness about Celtic’s prospects of taking their place among European football’s elite clubs in the group stage for the first time in four years. Instead, there was a curiously widespread feeling that the Play-off round tie was still very much in the balance.
It is a view this correspondent cannot share, even allowing for the evident failings in Celtic’s display at the Olympia Stadium in which goalkeeper Fraser Forster was required to deliver perhaps his finest display for the club so far.
To support my own view that Celtic are effectively already shooed-in for this Thursday’s group stage draw in Monte Carlo, allow me to present the evidence collated by peerless Dutch statistician Bert Kassies. The font of all knowledge when it comes to European club competitions, Kassies can tell us precisely the likelihood of Celtic blowing their first leg lead this week. There is, in fact, only a four per cent chance of that happening.
For in 142 European ties since 1999 when the away team has won 2-0 in the first leg, on only five occasions has the tie been lost by that team. In further succour to Celtic, it has never happened in the Champions League.
Shocks do happen, of course. The two most recent examples saw Liechtenstein minnows Vaduz triumph over Serbian side Vojvodina despite losing 2-0 at home in the first leg of a Europa League qualifier last season, while Sporting Lisbon turned around the same deficit with a 3-0 second leg win over Brondby in Denmark the previous season.
But Celtic’s fine home record in 50 years of playing in Europe surely adds to the unlikelihood of Helsingborgs producing such a remarkable turnaround. On only four occasions have Celtic lost at home by scorelines which would eliminate them this week. In each of those ties, they faced far higher calibre opponents than the current Swedish champions – losing to Arsenal (0-2) in 2009, Barcelona (1-3) in 2004, Hamburg (0-2) in 1996 and Paris St Germain (0-3) in 1995.
Irrespective of a natural tendency by managers to fear the worst, it is surely quite inconceivable that Neil Lennon will not be celebrating the best achievement of his managerial career so far on Wednesday night.
David Marshall has endured rough luck in bid to be Scotland No 1
WHILE a certain £14 million striker will inevitably be the elephant in the room as far as Craig Levein is concerned when he names his squad for the opening World Cup qualifying matches against Serbia and Macedonia, perhaps the most pressing decision facing the Scotland manager is at the other end of the pitch.
The knee injury sustained by his established first-choice goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, in the 3-1 friendly win over Australia earlier this month was a significant blow for Levein. With the career of Craig Gordon, previously the most serious rival to McGregor’s place in the national team, still in limbo as he searches for a new club, it leaves Levein with a straight choice between two English Championship ’keepers – Matt Gilks and David Marshall.
With Blackpool No 1 Gilks finally winning his first cap as a substitute for McGregor against the Australians, two years after he was first drafted into the squad on the strength of his Scottish grandmother, the 30-year-old may be in pole position to get the nod from Levein for the crucial Group A double-header at Hampden on 8 and 11 September.
If so, then it would perhaps sum up the generally wretched misfortune Cardiff City’s Marshall has encountered at international level since he burst onto the Scottish football scene in such stunning fashion as a teenager at Celtic back in 2004.
His magnificent performance and clean sheet in the Nou Camp for Martin O’Neill’s side in their Uefa Cup victory over Barcelona was the start of a spell which convinced many observers that here was a player destined to become Scotland’s first-choice goalkeeper for many years.
Yet through a combination of circumstances, Marshall has so far won just five caps for his country since making his international debut in a friendly against Hungary eight years ago. The 27-year-old’s CV is not helped by Scotland having lost all five of those matches, with the concession of 15 goals in the process. Yet the reality is that there are not many of those goals Marshall could be directly blamed for, while his display in the unfortunate 1-0 home defeat by the Netherlands during the last World Cup qualifying campaign was one of the most accomplished of any Scotland goalkeeper in recent times.
If Marshall finds himself warming the bench at Hampden again in a fortnight, he will be entitled to reflect that he has been dealt the cruellest of hands when it comes to trying to fulfil his international ambitions.