Celtic eased into the Champions League play-offs thanks to goals from Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras in their third qualifier against HJK Helsinki at the Sonera Stadium last night.
The Wales international bundled Charlie Mulgrew’s cross home in the 66th minute before Samaras scored five minutes from the end to give the Scottish champions a 4-1 aggregate win and only their second away victory in Europe in 34 attempts.
Manager Neil Lennon expressed his delight afterwards and said he looked forward to the next round. “I am thrilled, absolutely thrilled for the players, the backroom team, the supporters and the club,” said Lennon.
“It is a step in the right direction. The players did the business and they came good and I think it was convincing. We weathered the storm after the break and scored two wonderful goals so I could not be more proud of the players.
“For us to play as well as that was terrific. We will see what the draw brings, we are not getting carried away but this will give the players a huge shot in the arm.”
Midfielder Victor Wanyama was sent off in the second-half with the score at 1-0 after picking up the second of two yellow cards, while skipper Brown, Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew and substitute Beram Kayal also found themselves in Austrian referee Robert Schorgenhofer’s book.
Lennon was clearly unhappy with the official but would only say: “I don’t want to take the gloss off the night but to say the referee was inconsistent is an understatement.”
There had been a lot of focus on the artificial pitch, but Celtic, all in black, looked comfortable and in the early stages it was the HJK Helsinki who appeared to have problems judging their passes, especially in defence.
The Scottish champions slowly grew in confidence as the home side’s obvious limitations became clear and in the 12th minute Brown should have put the visitors ahead. Mulgrew’s pass beat the HJK defence to find the Scotland midfielder but although his first touch was good, he missed the target from 12 yards with just keeper Ville Wallen to beat.
Less than two minutes later Parkhead wide-man Samaras appeared ready to burst the net when he took a Kris Commons pass but he fired wide of the far post from the edge of the box.
Commons picked up a booking for dissent in the 27th minute for complaining about striker Gary Hooper being penalised again for backing into a HJK Helsinki defender but it looked like a small blemish in what was turning out to be a good performance by the visitors.
Hoops keeper Fraser Forster might have had to make his first save 10 minutes from the break if HJK Helsinki winger Demba Savage had not taken a fresh air swipe from Sebastian Sorsa’s cross.
Celtic’s opener came when Mulgrew decided to go on a run down the right flank to link up with Samaras and when his in-swinging cross came into the box Ledley chested it past Wallen from a couple of yards out.
It looked like the visitors were cruising but there was concern with 20 minutes remaining when Wanyama was dismissed after picking up his second yellow. However, Samaras made sure of the win in the 86th minute.
HJK HELSINKI: Wallen, Sorsa, Lahti, Lindstrom, Sumusalo, Mannstrom (Zeneli 74) , Vayrynen, Perovuo (Sadik 69), Savage, Schuller, Pohjanpalo.
CELTIC: Forster, Matthews, Wanyama, Rogne, Mulgrew, Brown, Commons (Forrest 74), Ledley, Izaguirre, Samaras (Murphy 88), Hooper (Kayal 74).
Referee: Robert Schorgenhofer (Austria)
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