Celtic are back in the biggest football competition in the world, after seeing off Helsingborg in Glasgow. Already 2-0 up on aggregate from the previous leg, the priority on paper was keeping a clean sheet. In reality, Neil Lennon set out to attack from the off, with the Swedish guard broken by Gary Hooper after 30 minutes.
Scott Brown returned from injury to return to the side, but Thomas Rogne wasn’t deemed fit enough. James Forrest’s recovery continues, earning a start on the right wing with Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras also returning.
Tony Watt, Filip Twardzik, Paddy McCourt and Mikael Lustig dropped out from the team that beat Inverness at the weekend as a result.
Helsingborg coach Åge Hareide has been enduring problems at centre-back recently, with Walid Atta just returning to the team after being suspended for the weekend Allsvenskan loss against Djurgården, and Loret Sadiku pulling out right before kick-off. The inexperienced Joseph Baffo came in to partner Atta.
Again, Hareide stuck with the customary 4-4-2, which normally would be a surprise for a side under pressure and away from home in Europe, but given the need to overcome a 2 goal deficit, it wouldn’t have made much sense to change to a more defensive, less comfortable formation.
Celtic direct + Helsingborg press
With 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, there tends not to be “spare” players for either side to utilise in holding possession of the ball, resulting in both sides starting off with a very direct style of player. The high amount of turnovers suited the Swedes, with Celtic generally working the ball to Charlie Mulgrew, who would then launch a long ball.
Helsingborg were playing with a high defensive line, so in theory there was plenty of space for Hooper and Commons to make runs into. But nothing was working out – the strikers were on a different wavelength to the passes, and the defenders were tracking any other runs quite easily.
As the first half wore on, the exception was Samaras on the left whose more capable than any at exploiting high defensive lines. Forrest might be faster by the clock, but the Greek is much more efficient at using his bodyweight to hold off challenges, and in this case was having more success and creating chances for himself.
The quickness in giving up the ball was proving to be a problem as Helsingborg grew in urgency and were actually winning the possession battle, making for a frustrating first-half. At 2-0 Celtic should’ve been sitting back, sweeping the ball around confidently against an impetuous and open side. Instead the ball was carelessly given back again and again.
Lennon took action by switching the ineffective Commons and Samaras, which resolved two points. Firstly, someone more capable of holding up the long-balls (again harking back to the “target-man problem”) and secondly, pushing Samaras nearer to the brink of Helsingborg’s defensive line.
While Samaras was excellent higher up (with the goal coming at this time), even when played as striker he continues to drift into his favoured left-channel – the same area that Commons was meant to be operating in. Helsingborg had done the correct thing in negating Commons, pushing up and keeping him away from goal, and while he’s normally considered the most creative attacking outlet in the team, he now had to take a back-seat and let Samaras continue his good work.
Into the second half and a goal up, Lennon tried moving Samaras over into the right striker position, taking up similar positions on that side. But again this left Forrest slightly moot, and the rest of Samaras’ contribution was drifting from side to side, depending on space and circumstance.
End game – Wilson and Wanyama
By now jig was up, and the higher Helsingborg pressed the more damage Samaras (and to an extent Forrest) could do, with Celtic guilty of being a bit profligate in the final third. There also looked to be more focus on keeping the ball instead of the super-direct, high turnover game of the first-half.
At the other end, Helsingborg’s attack was punctuated by two mammoth defensive performances from Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama. Wilson in particular kept things simple at the back, winning the majority of challenges and distributing the ball sideways or backwards safely.
Last season Wilson played 19 times at left centre-back compared to 3 on the right, which may explain the difference in performance and confidence. Why the shift? Last season neither Thomas Rogne or Glenn Loovens (or to an extent Wanyama) are comfortable at left centre-back. And with Mulgrew often deputising at left-back for Izaguirre (and then Majsotorivc’s injury) responsibility landed on Wilson. It’s too early to say whether this is a bona fide reason for the increase in quality, but certainly a contributing factor.
Wanyama while great defensively in displaying consistently tenacious and tough ball-winning, has a lazy fringe to his game. Sometimes a bit too casual on the ball under pressure which at times can be gotten away with, but equally can provide the opposition with chances. Stronger teams winning the ball high up the park will only need one chance to exploit this.
The result justified the means (with another impressive cameo from Tony Watt to boot), and while Celtic Park rocked at the prospect of joining Europe’s elite once again, there were familiar niggly worries.
In the first half there still wasn’t any real intention to keep hold of the ball, not entertaining the idea of adding an additional midfielder to recycle the ball more freely, and too eager to hit long and hopeful passes.
Samaras’ rise coincided with Commons’ relative fall, with the two trying to move into the same spaces – just Helsingborg’s high and compact pressing was more suited to Samaras’ strength.
But the positives vastly outweigh all of this criticism. The Champions League group stage continues to be the benchmark for Lennon’s Celtic, far more important than the SPL were it not for the effect that winning the league has on European qualification. The injury situation is improving, with Forrest slowly creeping back to maximum effectiveness, along with Brown, Rogne et al.
Given the grave importance of qualification, along with the thrilling chance-laden end to the match, it seems churlish to criticise the performance. And so like most people in Scottish football, the time now is to savour the moment and appreciate the strides that have been taken over the past 3-4 seasons.