The Champions League group stage remains 180 minutes away for Celtic but they weren't in the mood to delay their satisfaction and celebrations last night. How they enjoyed this memorable result in Helsinki which eliminated the Finnish champions, HJK, and secured a place in the play-off round of a tournament they desperately seek to grace.
For once they were on a European away trip they will savour, not rush to forget. Joe Ledley's goal sent them towards only their second away win in 34 European matches stretching back nine years, and Georgios Samaras wrapped it up in the dying minutes.
All those horrible memories melted away. HJK were not added to Braga, Utrecht and Sion as clubs who have beaten them in recent qualifiers. Their first clean sheet since a goalless draw in Hamburg three years ago would have been enough to take them through regardless, but after a fraught spell of HJK pressure early in the second half the goals allowed them to coast to the final whistle.
There was even the luxury of not having to be too perturbed by the 71st minute dismissal of Victor Wanyama for a second yellow card. Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew and Biram Kayal were also booked, which was ironic given that the performance as a whole was mature and disciplined.
They would have kicked themselves black and blue if they had gone out to HJK, an ordinary side, but 4-1 was a comfortable and deserved aggregate win.
So, after four years without it, they arejust one tie away from the Champions League group stage, then.
The play-off round draw is held tomorrow with the games being held on August 21/22 and 28/29. Celtic are seeded and could be paired with one of the following: Helsingborgs, Maribor, Hapoel Kityat Shmona, AEL Limassol, Cluj or Basel.
Even if they lose there will be the consolation of falling into the Europa League group stage which begins in September and continues until early December.
Celtic had trained on the Sonera Stadium's artificial pitch on Tuesday evening, when it was dry. By agreement between both clubs on the morning of the match it was then watered before kick-off. It didn't look a great surface. Celtic took a little time to get accustomed to the bounce of the ball and the speed of the pitch yet there were times when they looked at least as comfortable with it as HJK.
In their third game of the season Lennon had a third different central defensive partnership – Mulgrew and Thomas Rogne this time – with Wanyama sitting in front of them. The back four did a better job of dealing with the pace of wingers Seb Mannstrom and Demba Savage, both of whom had the moments in the first leg. The 17-year-old prodigy, striker Joel Pohjanpalo, never got a sniff.
HJK only needed one goal but created only one decent first-half chance, when Sebastian Sorsa's deep cross found Savage running in at the back post. His finish was savage too, sliced horribly wide. Fraser Forster's only first-half save was an easy hold of Mika Vayrynen's drive.
Then, suddenly, HJK had some joy down the left at the start of the second half. Pohjanpalo crossed low to Sorsa and his shot was heading into the corner until Forster's touch put it past for a corner. It was a moment which lifted them, prompting a spell of real danger for Celtic. Mathias Lindstrom met a Mannstrom corner with a close-range header which flew off Forster and out for a corner.
Celtic could have spared themselves these palpitations. Brown has been playing with a painful hip problem but created new agony for himself with an awful miss. Mulgrew took out the HJK defence with a ball over the top to find the midfielder's run. Play seemed to stop – as if everyone thought him offside – but no flag was raised. Brown took an age before jabbing a low shot wide with the outside of his right boot.
There were others, at least in the first half. Samaras flashed a shot wide, Gary Hooper had the ball in the net but was offside when he took possession, and later his first touch let him down when Commons picked him out with an excellent pass. Commons, Brown, Ledley and Samaras played behind Hooper in a 4-1-4-1. For the most part Celtic looked composed but for as long as it remained goalless the match – poor as it was – had an unmistakable tension.
Ledley's 67th-minute goal punctured all of it. Celtic survived HJK's pressure at the start of the second half and all of a sudden Samaras picked out Mulgrew galloping away down the right wing. His ball into the middle sailed past goalkeeper Ville Wallen to Ledley, who chested it into the net and raced to the corner to milk the acclaim of the 400-or-so Celtic supporters.
Doubtless plenty of them had suffered some awful away nights in the past, but not this time. Samaras took Ledley's pass and buried it in the corner to make their night, and potentially their season, even better.
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