We are only into the first week of August, but Celtic are facing one of the most important games in their recent history on Wednesday as their European dreams hang in the balance.
The Bhoys head to Finland to face HJK Helsinki in the second leg of their Champions League third-round qualifier with a 2-1 lead from the first leg and the importance of progression to the final play-off round cannot be overstated for the Glasgow club.
The SPL season got underway at the weekend, but with no Rangers to give Celtic competition for the title (and to give the TV people some interest given the lack of Old Firm clashes) the Champions League has become even more significant for Neil Lennon’s side for two reasons: one, it would offer Celtic some top level, competitive football; but also, more vitally, it can provide the club with a much-needed injection of cash if progression to the group stages is assured.
Celtic have won just one of their last 22 away trips in the competition proper, as well as in the qualifying rounds, and have lost an incredible 18 of those games.
To that end, Wednesday’s clash is crucial. Celtic have a second-half comeback to thank for taking a lead to Helsinki, with goals from Gary Hooper and Charlie Mulgrew securing a narrow advantage after the away side had taken the lead through Rasmus Schuller.
Lennon said afterwards he was pleased with the turnaround, but that away goal HJK scored just after half-time could yet prove crucial and the 90-minute odds for the match make for interesting reading.
Celtic are favourites to win at 27/20, with the draw at 12/5 and Helsinki 9/5, and I have to say it would take a brave man to back the Hoops at those odds.
Helsinki are not the greatest side in Europe, but Celtic’s away record in the Champions League is so dreadful you’d have to be mad to back them. Celtic have won just one of their last 22 away trips in the competition proper, as well as in the qualifying rounds, and have lost an incredible 18 of those games.
They have failed to score in 12 of those defeats and it doesn’t seem to matter where they are going – be it Barcelona or Basel, Arsenal or AaB – they just get turned over. And what’s more, they don’t seem to be travelling to Helsinki in the best shape.
Their pre-season friendlies, admittedly not always the best barometer of a team’s form, have been littered with sub-par performances (four defeats out of seven) and a lack of goals (just four all summer). And their season hasn’t started convincingly either: aside from the comeback win over Helsinki, Celtic were far from impressive in beating Aberdeen in the SPL at Parkhead on Saturday, a late Kris Commons goal giving them a 1-0 victory (and me a 29/10 winner) in a match that Lennon later stated ‘could have gone either way’.
And with Scott Brown still injured and rated very doubtful (although he may play with an injection), I don’t think Celtic will find it easy against a side with a very strong home record. The Finish Viekkausliiga is not renowned for its quality, but you have to go back to February to find the last time Helsinki lost a home match of any kind and they have only lost four of the previous 45 matches in all competitions at the Sonera Stadium.
So with Helsinki well in the swing of their season and Celtic still getting up to speed, I like the 9/5 that the Finns pile more away-day Euro misery on Celtic on Wednesday evening.
Punters joining bwin.com can claim a free £20 bet and placing this on HJK Helsinki to beat Celtic inside 90 minutes will return if successful.
Whether this outcome will also be by a scoreline which sends Celtic through to the play-off round, either on away goals or via extra-time and the lottery of penalties, remains to be seen.
Recommended bet: HJK Helsinki to beat Celtic @ 9/5
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