Celtic made a customary sloppy start to the first competitive match of the season, before improving enough to take advantage in what’s turning out to be a tougher tie than expected.
The lineup was always going to be governed by the fitness of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, the former starting in the number 10 position and the latter only making the bench. While Victor Wanyama was never in doubt to feature from the start, it was surprising that he kept the more natural centre-back Thomas Rogne out the side, taking his place in central defence. This allowed Scott Brown to play in the centre of midfield, and in turn James Forrest could be utilised on the right.
Of the possible formations considered in the pre-season summary, Neil Lennon went for the 4-4-1-1 (or arguably 4-2-3-1, the subtle distinction being without the ball there was a clear, flat 4-4 band with the two attackers staying ahead and pressing the opposition defence). The main selling point for Lennon being the close similarity to 4-4-2, only with one forward more withdrawn.
Antti Muurinen made four changes to the side that disappointed in the derby defeat to FC Honka. As considered in the HJK preview, it is unthinkable for a 4-4-2 side to persist with such a formation in a difficult away European tie. The compromise here was withdrawing the inexperienced, if proflific striker Joel Pohjanpalo in favour of a more robust central/attacking midfielder in Rasmus Schuller. His instructions, in comparison to Commons, was clearly more defence orientated, with his normal midfield berth consequently taken up by Joel Perovuo.
Elsewhere, centre-back Rami Hakanpää was dropped following his dismissal against Honka, and versatile full-back Tuomas Kansikas was left out in favour of the pacier Mikko Sumusalo; suiting HJK’s counter-attacking intention.
The hosts came flying out of the traps, eager to buck the aforementioned trend of performing poorly in 3rd round qualifying. HJK by contrast, initially couldn’t cope with Celtic’s intensity going forward. Particularly the movement and interlinking of Commons and Forrest central and right, almost to the point of swapping positions at will.
The other positive, like against Inter Milan in pre-season, was directness of Emilio Izaguirre and Georgios Samaras on the left flank. Both share the same main attribute of blistering pace, but neither could find an end product for their hard running.
Weathering of the storm
Though it’ll be the most repeated phrase across all media platforms, HJK to their credit weathered the storm, defending deep, narrow and content without the ball – exactly the requirement of the situation, and perhaps contrary to the expected width that the dangermen Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström like to bring. The effective and organised defending reflective of the fact HJK are already 18 matches into their
The recklessness apparent in HJK’s past few matches is still evident, with Timi Lahti and Mathias Lindström probably being leniently treated by the ref, but equally Wanyama could’ve given away a penalty with a very clumsy challenge in his own box.
HJK’s stubborn and patient approach took the sting out of Celtic’s early thrust, and from around 20 minutes onwards came out of their shell with comfortable, if mostly non-penetrating passing spells. Two fine chances were carved out, the first on the counter requiring Adam Matthews to be alert after Emilio Izaguirre dabbled and lost the ball, and the second a decent drive from Peruvuo keeping Frazer Forster on his toes.
First tinker of the season
With 34 minutes on the clock and frustration brewing, Lennon made his first tactical tinker, surely as a response to his sides growing insistence on playing rushed, hopeful passes. Samaras was pushed up front to provide a target, with Forrest moved to the left-wing and Commons going right.
The adjustment was of interest because, it wasn’t exactly that the initial formation wasn’t working – more a slipping of concentration and patience. Thus the same negative issues continued for the rest of the half – an urgency to get forward just without the patience or thinking to dictate the match.
Whether this played on Lennon’s mind is uncertain, but for the second half it was a return to Plan A, but before the change could sink in HJK had taken the lead. Mannström – a known decisive passer – twisted away from Izaguirre and finding the onrushing Schuller, who scored on his second attempt, with luck on his side on the rebound.
This turned the home pressure up a few notches with a more focused urgency returning to Celtic. Forrest on the right had the constant beating of his man, but finding a team-mate gambling on the right path of the final ball proved troubelsome. Commons demonstrated his effectiveness working in the hole behind the striker, by hitting the post from 25 yards.
He continued in this creative role, helping Samaras through to the key area to attack – the area behind HJK’s full-backs. Tearing onto the ball, the Greek managed to produce the all-important final ball that until that point had been lacking, and Hooper tapped in easily.
Soon after, HJK were to commit a fatal sin in effecting a substitution while defending a corner. The old cliché rang true, as Mulgrew headed in from Common’s delivery.
There was tactical mayham towards the end as Lennon pressed for another. On 65′ Stokes came on for Commons returning to a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2, and then very late on the formation became more lopsided 4-4-2, with Wanyama joining the midfield to make a 3 (and Lustig at centre-back), Paddy McCourt on the left-wing (in place of Samaras), and finally Stokes and Forrest up top quite central.
While a win was always the target, in knock-out competition a clean-sheet can be just as important. The amount of chances that Celtic created should’ve mitigated the conceding of Schuller’s goal, but the 2 goal cushion never came.
HJK played the archetypal European away performance (against stronger opposition) in defending deep and narrow, hitting patiently and only at the right time on the counter, and making one of the few chances count. One flaw perhaps was Savage’s tendency to drift towards the strikers, failing at times to track back which served to isolate Sumusalo as the defender struggled to cope with Forrest.
It was Forrest, Commons and Samaras who were Celtic’s greatest success, and again referring back to the pre-season summary, highlights just how useful a geuine lone striker could be for the side, and also the gradual move away from 4-4-2 and towards something more fluid and fashionably European.