At the helm of the SPL Champions, Neil Lennon has gone a long way to ward off his critics. While domestic trophies are the lifeblood – almost expected even – of a Celtic manager, it’s performances in Europe that really elevate the good to greatness. With the deterioration of Scottish football, the stakes are even higher, but for Lennon himself a 3rd “failed” attempt is almost incomprehensible.
In the previous two attempts, the stumbling block has been getting into gear for the first competitive game of the season (the Artmedia nightmare still haunts) and to an extent Lennon has tried to alleviate the danger by carefully increasing the intensity of the pre-season friendlies. The final fixture, a 1-1 draw against Internazionale was a belated return to good form, though the Italians seemed mired in a pre-season slumber of their own.
HJK by contrast, thanks to the intricacies of the Finnish football calendar are 19 matches into the Veikkausliiga campaign and 2 points behind league leaders Inter Turku. They entered the Champions League qualifying in the 2nd qualifying stage, defeating Iceland’s KR Reykjavík 9-1 on aggregate. Their league form hasn’t been so tasty however, having won only 3 of their last 10 matches which includes a 2-0 thumping in the top of the table clash.
Quite simply, HJK are as much a 4-4-2 side as Celtic, shaping up in at least the previous 5 games using a very rigid version of the system. The exception is on the flanks, with Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström the main attacking threats from midfield.
Savage is known as one who relies on speed, at his most comfortable running onto the ball at pace, and without the ball drifting towards the strikers, eager to be fed on the break and almost envious of their defensive freedom.
Mannström is a different kind of wide midfielder, with excellent close control and the ability to beat a man one-0n-one and squeeze into gaps. Perhaps comparable to Kris Commons in that, what he lacks in pace and power is made up for in intelligence and ingenuity.
What will worry manager Antti Muurinen, based on Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Honka is how prone to cards the central defenders are. Both Rami Hakanpää and Mathias Lindström were guilty of diving in high up the park and under no real urgency to win the ball for their side. Lindström was lucky to receive the one yellow, where as Hakanpää was dismissed late on. The goalkeeper Ville Wallén was sent off on the hour for a calamitous mistake; handling the ball outside his own area. This recklessness will have to be suppressed under pressure on Wednesday night.
Chasing their fourth title on the trot, perhaps the devotion to 4-4-2 and two strikers up front isn’t so dissimilar to Celtic’s situation. Both teams tend to dominate matches, and therefore retaining two forwards makes sense. But the idea of playing a superior team away from home in Europe, and not considering a five-man midfield, is inconceivable.
On paper highly rated 17-year old Joel Pohjanpalo is first choice, having banged in 13 goals in 27 appearances this season. But having missed the return leg against KR last round, and having a quiet match against Honka, perhaps the youngster may be withdrawn in favour of bolstering the midfielder.
Instead, former Hearts centre-forward Juho Mäkelä might lead the line. His return of 10 goals in 20 matches is respectable, and at 29 (along with his time in Scotland) has the experience required at this stage.
It’s easy to be dismissive of HJK given their poor run of form, but the Finns pack a punch. Physical all over the park, there’s enough talent on the flanks and in the precocious young Pohjanpalo to take advantage of any Celtic slip-ups.
Celtic possible Lineup
The immediate concern is over the fitness of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, who were both injured in the draw with Inter Milan. Lennon hasn’t ruled out either playing, with Stokes said to have slightly better chances of making it.
While Commons had an impressive end of season and close-season, James Forrest is arguably still ahead in the pecking order for that right-wing slot having had a marvellous past campaign. But the other choice for that side is Scott Brown; given how packed with talent the centre of the park is, the Captain may be accommodated in Commons’ place on the right.
But will it be a return to Lennon’s European 4-4-2 diamond? This leaves plenty of room for the raft of talented central midfielders and room for two strikers plus James Forrest. The safe-bet would be the standard 4-4-2, and while it’s difficult to pre-empt Lennon’s selections, given what is at stake, there shouldn’t be any surprises. If Stokes doesn’t make it, expect Samaras to move higher up with Forrest on the left.