European football hasn’t been too kind to Neil Lennon.
He still speaks of the embarrassment dealt to him by Sporting Braga as he made his debut as permanent Celtic manager in the Champions League qualifiers two years ago. A humbling 3-0 defeat was hardly the best first impression.
Despite entry to the Europa League by default, last season’s chastening 3-1 aggregate defeat to Swiss side FC Sion last season did little to ease Lennon’s continental pain.
However, for the first time tonight (Wednesday) a Celtic side under Lennon will head into a European qualifier second leg with a lead, albeit a slender one.
In what has become almost customary, Celtic made a rather lethargic start to their competitive season in last week’s first leg against HJK Helsinki. Most in attendance at Celtic Park will agree the Finns shouldn’t have posed much of a threat to the home side. Somehow, they did.
Far from complacency tainting Scottish opinion that Celtic should progress comfortably, HJK are quite simply a modestly equipped outfit. The word ‘mediocre’ has even been uttered. Yet they head into the return leg with a genuine chance of causing an upset.
So what do the SPL champions need to do to take a step closer to reach the Champions League group stage for the first time in four years?
From a tactical perspective Lennon will likely recycle the 4-4-1-1 formation used in the first leg, a system that can quickly slide into a 4-2-3-1 shape in the transition into attack.
Kris Commons has carried on his personal resurgence from the end of last season. Many seem to have forgotten just how well he can operate between the lines of midfield and attack, interlinking Georgios Samaras, James Forrest and Gary Hooper into the play.
But HJK have their own dynamic playmaker in between the lines, as Sebastian Mannstrom demonstrated in the first leg. The Celtic defence struggled to account for the roaming movement of the Finnish international. Indeed it was Mannstrom who threaded through former Hearts striker, Juho Makela for HJK to take a surprise lead in the first leg.
Neither Victor Wanyama nor Charlie Mulgrew appeared decisive in marking Mannstrom last week, with Wanyama in particular struggling to determine when to press high and when to stand off the 23-year-old as he drifted in off the right of midfield. If Celtic are to progress they must manage Mannstrom better.
Celtic might well have another young Finn to be wary of in Helsinki. 17-year-old, Joel Pohjanpalo was the victim of HJK manager, Antti Muurinen’s conservative system in the first leg, but with the Finnish league champions in need of a positive, attacking performance tonight they may deploy their prodigal talent alongside Makela, instead of bolstering their midfield, as was the case in Glasgow.
Pohjanpalo netted twice in the previous round, on his European debut against Icelandic side, KR Reykjavik, adding to his impressive tally of 13 goals in 27 appearances this season. Such is the excitement in Finland over the teenager he has become a YouTube sensation after scoring the ‘perfect hat-trick’ in the space of three minutes during a league game earlier this year.
HJK are a stubborn side and boast quality in certain areas. Celtic should be wary of writing off a team that will be operating at a more tuned level of performance by virtue of their league schedule (HJK are mid-way through their season).
We should expect the archetypal European away performance from Celtic, with last season’s relatively successful Europa League campaign illustrating the benefits of such a strategy to Lennon. A reluctance to adopt such an approach is widely judged to have hindered Celtic in previous European qualifiers under their Northern Irish manager. The hope is a growing maturity has nullified that tactical naivety.
However, despite all that could trip them up, Celtic should have too much quality for their Finnish counterparts. HJK may have to hope Lennon’s European curse strikes again.
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