Celtic are through to the Champions League play-off round after a dogged victory over HJK in Finland. Neil Lennon’s side set out to calmly control possession, and save for a few shaky moments in the second half with the score level, progression was never really in doubt.
Lennon named an extraordinarily pliable starting lineup, with the possibility of a 4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-2, or a form of 4-5-1. As widely predicted the Gary Hooper / Anthony Stokes partnership was broken up, leaving Hooper up front on his own. This left a classic, sensible, ‘European away’ 4-1-4-1 formation with Georgios Samaras on the left, and Kris Commons in quite a deep position on the right.
What remained was perhaps the first choice goalkeeper and back four, along with a sturdy central midfield three to battle HJK’s expected 4-4-1-1.
As an aside, James Forrest was just fit enough to make the bench, with Beram Kayal dropping out of the starting XI to make room for the Captain Scott Brown.
A couple of factors made for a more than comfortable start for Celtic. The conservative formation provided a safe and stifling base to keep HJK in check, and the Finns seemed to be struggling with the pressure of having the responsibility to attack. With no easy openings and losing possession easily, Celtic were able to apply pressure through deep runs into space from midfield. First Brown pushed on unimpeded to squander a one-on-one opportunity to score, and soon after Samaras missed a slightly more difficult chance after running into space on the left. The misses were concerning, but not catastrophically so given the tepid pace of the match. Interesting to note, however that in Brown’s case the pin-point pass was delivered long from Mulgrew, who was working out time and space on the ball against the opposition lone striker.
Another concern was Hooper’s toiling as a lone striker. As much as losing the holding up battle with the centre-backs, he was losing the battle with the referee who constantly adjudged the striker to be backing in or clinging on. Regretfully, keeping the ref onside (whether you’re fouling or not) is part and parcel of being a decent targetman.
Speaking of which, HJK suffered an injury blow with Juho Mäkelä being replaced by Joel Pohjanpalo. And the former Hearts man’s experience was lacking – as exciting a prodigy Pohjanpalo may be, the role at this level requires utter selflessness, along with shrewdness and intelligence to get anything out of “the graveyard shift”.
HJK’s choking inability to keep the ball was the polar opposite of last week’s composed display, and it looked like a matter of time before Celtic grabbed the killer away goal. But as half-time loomed, the breakthrough couldn’t be found.
HJK’s big push
Celtic probably felt aggrieved that their mature and patient approach hadn’t yeilded a goal, and the frustration was manifesting in too many scattered long passes and frittering away possession resulting in HJK’s best spell just after the interval.
With too many edgy turnovers, space was opening for HJK to make use of – particularly Rasmus Schüller and Demba Savage although the final ball was frequently lacking. The right-back Sebastian Sorsa was responsible for two of his side’s biggest chances pushing forward from the back (with Samaras guilty of lazy tracking) first in setting up Savage for a decent opportunity, and then squandering the best chance of all – failing to find the net from a free and unmarked position inside the box.
Now HJK have the space to take advantage of, with Svage particular keen to, and Commons/Samaras not tracking back effectively. Sebastian Sorsa a great example, darting into the box untracked to get on the end of Savages cross to miss a glaring oportunity.
Having survived, and realising the error of their impatient ways, Celtic settled down to regroup and take the lead, finishing the tie as a contest. As one of Celtic’s two freeest men on the park (the two centre-backs, marked in effect by 1 player), Mulgrew bounded forward with HJK unable to ascertain whose responsibility he was. After a quick one-two, he made it all the way to the right-wing position, confounding two men with a quick shimmy onto his left, and delivering sweetly to Joe Ledley at the back post.
Aside from the earlier deep ‘creative’ duties, this high-lighted the surprise effect that buccaneering centre-backs can have on switched off defences. Reminiscent of what Madjid Bougherra once did in Europe for the now extinct Rangers.
Another notable and impressive feature, was Samaras’ continued use of the early left-footed cross. Rather than allowing the defence time to get into position, the quick-ball curled into the dangerous area between goalkeeper and defence is Hooper’s preferred method of delivery (as per the goal in the first leg), and it’s effectiveness was demonstrated twice, albeit without a goal.
The tictactic pseudo-preview underlined the exaggerated importance of Commons in Lennon’s thinking, but the match selection here confronted this idea. For once it was a triumph of the overall shape and organisation over pandering to the individual. Here, Commons was given a “graveyard shift” of his own – rather than enjoying a free role, or a striker-ish role, was forced to keep shape on the right, and keep the opposition full-back in check.
Elsewhere, the deep 4-1-4-1 was meticulously maintained, with the excellent Ledley (2nd half) and Brown (1st half) pushing forward at only the most suitable moment. Brown, especially earlier on was harking back to his Hibernian days – pushing into an attacking midfield position that appears so alien now for the established ball-winner. Ledley has a justifiable claim for MOTM, having scored the first, setup the second, and generally putting in an obligatory work-horse performance.
While Victor Wanyama put in another physically controlling display, he was punished rather harshly by the referee in being guilty of 2 fouls and being booked in both instances without hesitation. In isolation, it is true that the bookings were fair (the first a scissor slide tackle – a textbook yellow particularly in Europe, and the second a rash swipe)
Still, leniency is usually expected – especially on the 2nd of just 2 fouls, but what aggrieved Celtic more was the questionable decisions given against Hooper in his targetman tussles, where as HJK mostly (and probably correctly) got away unpunished. There simply weren’t enough yellow card offences on show from the hosts.
Negatives aside, what cannot be mistaken is the focused and patient nature of this away European performance against a good side. The back 6 were accustomed with each other, the system was given priority over attacking speculation, and for once there was no mid-match unnecessary tinkering. Instead the team were left to force the issue themselves – and they delivered.