Even at this stage of the summer, Celtic have a seven-day period that could well define their season.
The SPL begins on Saturday, but without Rangers there is little chance of the Bhoys not retaining their SPL title and as a result of the Ibrox club’s financial meltdown, the Champions League has become an even greater priority for the green and white side of Glasgow.
With the exact repercussions of Rangers’ relegation to the fourth tier of Scottish football unknown – although it looks like many SPL clubs will struggle in their absence – Celtic’s only real chance of genuinely competitive football (not to mention earning some money) comes from the Champions League and it makes the two-legged tie against Finnish champions HJK Helsinki all the more vital to the club’s future.
If that sounds a tad over the top, then you only have to read chief executive Peter Lawwell’s open letter to supporters on Saturday, which basically pleaded with them to ignore what the fiasco at Rangers has done to the state of Scottish football and rally round the club (or in other words, buy a season ticket and give him their money).
While my gut instinct tells me to oppose Celtic at those prices, Helsinki’s away form has been poor. HJK have won just two their last eight trips in all competitions, losing five, meaning that 6/1 isn’t as tempting as it initially appeared.
If pulling the fans’ heartstrings by recalling Jock Stein, Tommy Burns and Henrik Larsson might amount to emotional blackmail in the eyes of some, it at least shows how serious the situation Celtic now face really is – never before has qualification to the group stages of the Champions League been so important.
This third-round qualifying match against Helsinki (a final play-off round awaits the winner) is going to shape Celtic’s season and given the Bhoys’ dire away record in Europe, you would think a positive result at Parkhead on Wednesday is critical if they are to progress.
They are priced up at 2/5 with bwin to take a lead to Finland, with HJK the 27/4 outsiders and the draw at 16/5 and the first thing to be said is that Celtic are incredibly short at those odds.
Since the end of the SPL season in May, Neil Lennon’s side have played seven friendly fixtures: they have won just once, losing to Norwich (twice), Ajax and Stuttgarter Kickers and have scored just three goals in those seven games, two of which came in their solitary win against Aalen, a German third division side.
A 1-1 draw against Inter Milan on Saturday was more encouraging, but it is not the sort of form you want to be carrying into a match of such importance, especially as Helsinki are in mid-season and will have the edge fitness-wise.
Antti Muurinen’s side are well in title contention again, lying second, just two points behind Inter Turku, and given their extra match sharpness and the form Celtic have displayed so far this summer – not to mention injury doubts over Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes and Scott Brown – I wouldn’t be touching odds-on about Celtic with your money.
I don’t see much difference between the standard of the SPL and the Finnish Veikkausliiga and over two legs this is going to be a close tie.
Still, while my gut instinct tells me to oppose Celtic at those prices, Helsinki’s away form has been poor. HJK have won just two their last eight trips in all competitions, losing five, meaning that 6/1 isn’t as tempting as it initially appeared.
So in what I think will be a much tighter two-legged affair than people think, I’m going to be on the narrowest of Celtic wins. I’m not interested in their odds-on quote, but their home form is generally excellent and the 21/20 on a home win that produces under 3.5 goals is the safest way to play it.
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