Neil Lennon has stated he ‘appreciates the significance’ of Celtic’s trip to Sweden to face Helsingborgs for the first leg of their final Champions League qualifier, but that somewhat undersells the importance of the match to their immediate future.
The Bhoys are two matches away from the lucrative group stages of the Champions League, a place they haven’t been since 2008/09, and how vital qualification is to the club is plain for anyone to see.
The demotion of Rangers to the fourth tier of Scottish football has left the SPL in a perilous financial state and with no Old Firm to generate interest, Celtic are in desperate need of the cash injection that competing in Europe’s premier competition will bring.
If that required further emphasis, you only need to look at Lennon’s admission this week that even though midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng is set to be sold to Swansea, he is unlikely to receive any of the proceeds to delve back into the transfer market.
Celtic will look to keep it tight in the first quarter of a two-legged tie. The Hoops did that against HJK Helsinki last time out, going in goalless at the break before claiming a win, and with Lennon’s tactics sure to be the same, the 19/10 looks a decent shout.
Quite how a club as big and traditionally powerful as Celtic got to this point is an argument for another day (it would take too long to discuss here) but that is the reality and somehow Lennon needs to negotiate this tie against Helsingborgs to earn the club some money, not to mention the chance to compete with some top-level sides.
Because in truth, the SPL certainly isn’t providing that, and Celtic are certain to win the league with embarrassing ease: their domestic matches so far have essentially been used as exercises to gear up for their European games and Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ross County was no different, with players either rested or not risked as all their energies were focused on tonight.
And their trip to Sweden won’t be an easy one. The Bhoys are 8/5 to grab a crucial first-leg lead, with the home side priced at 33/20 and the draw at 21/10.
Both teams will be looking at the draw and thinking there could be worse results, but the meeting between two of Henrik Larsson’s old clubs (the Celtic legend had two spells at his hometown club and has a statue erected there in his honour) could well be a nervy one for that exact reason.
Lennon has spoken of the need to still be in the tie come the second leg at Parkhead and will be wary of a side that has picked up some good form of late and generally have a good home record: Helsingborgs have lost just one of their last 17 matches at Olympia and have hit 14 goals in their last six home games.
But similarly, Helsingborgs coach Age Hareide is concerned about the threat Celtic possess, even if the Bhoys’ away record in Europe is the stuff of nightmares, with just four wins in 29 Champions League trips. Hareide has suggested that the biggest danger to his side’s progression is a Celtic away goal, pointing out the good away job the Swedes did in Poland against Slask Wroclaw and stating his side ‘don’t need to take a lead to Parkhead’.
That says everything about Hareide’s mindset and with Lennon happy to play it tight knowing home advantage is yet to come, the 19/10 that the match is 0-0 at half time looks a good play here (and is worth a cool to anyone backing it successfully with their free £20 bet upon registering with bwin).
Celtic generally struggle to score away from home anyway in Europe – the Glasgow side drew 15 blanks in those 29 trips and only seven times netted more than once – and will look to keep it tight in the first quarter of a two-legged tie.
The Hoops did that against HJK Helsinki last time out, going in goalless at the break before claiming a win, and with Lennon’s tactics sure to be the same, the 19/10 looks a decent shout.
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