Celtic tie still in the balance
Soccer:Striker Gary Hooper is confident Celtic can score in Finland and progress to the Champions League play-offs after coming from behind to beat HJK Helsink 2-1i at Parkhead. The Finns had rarely threatened in the first half but Rasmus Schuller netted on the rebound two minutes into the second period to stun the 52,849 crowd with a potentially crucial away goal.
However, Kris Commons hit the post from 20 yards within moments as Celtic responded well and Hooper then slotted home a Georgios Samaras cross in the 54th minute. Charlie Mulgrew headed home Commons' corner on the hour mark and, although Celtic could not increase their advantage, Hooper is optimistic they will net in Finland and progress.
The Englishman said: "I thought we played well. We didn't take our chances in the first half and conceded a sloppy goal but we came back and scored two good goals. We did really well to respond. We had to step it up a level and we did. I thought we played really well."
Helsinki are 19 games into their domestic season while the Clydesdale Bank Premier League champions open their campaign against Aberdeen on Saturday, but Hooper does not believe match sharpness was or will be an issue.
"We passed the ball well, the fitness levels were up there," he said. "The sharpness is not there yet but we are getting there. We have got an SPL game with Aberdeen and take the sharpness out of that into Wednesday.
"We have just got to play like we did. We will not sit in and defend, we will go there and play football. We have enough attacking players to score goals. We are good on the counter-attack. I look to score in every game and if the chances come like they did in the first leg then I think we have a good chance."
Neil Lennon was bullish in his assessment of his side’s first competitive 90 minutes of the season and their prospects in the return game in Finland next week. “I am not disappointed at all,” said the Northern Irishman.
“It is a huge improvement on where we were last year. I think Helsinki can count themselves pretty fortunate that it was only 2-1. They will think they have got a good result but I seen enough there....there is plenty of scope for us in the away tie.
“I am not looking at it through rose tinted glasses, I do look at it from a different perspective sometimes. I am pleased with the performance. The scoreline doesn’t reflect the performance but sometimes that happens.
“We have a week to get ready, we have another game at the weekend obviously and the players will benefit from that game tonight. The tempo of the game was good and some of the football and chances created were superb against a team who just wanted to sit in and counter-attack.
“We want European football badly and I think the players showed that. For me, the tie is in the balance. We are a goal up which gives us a slight advantage over them They will have to come out and score, they showed they are capable of doing that but then again, so are we.”
HJK Helsinki coach Antti Muurinen admitted his side got the away goal they wanted. He said: “The result mattered most and we have a good chance in the second game. I was especially pleased to get the goal away from home and I was especially pleased with the way we played in the first 45 minutes.
“It was an amazing atmosphere and Celtic played well but our team fought with great spirit. “The tempo Celtic played at wasn’t what we were used to and that is worrying for the second leg, but I still believe we have a chance.”