FROM NEIL DOHERTY IN HELSINKI: Neil Lennon’s smile said it all – but he was beaming from ear to ear here tonight after his Celtic side saw off HJK Helsinki by 2-0, only the Hoops second away win in 34 attempts.
Second-half goals from Joe Ledley and Giorgos Samaras secured a ten-man Celtic FC victory, booking them a place in the UEFA Champions League play-offs via a 4-1 aggregate win.
“I have been agonising over this tie for a long, long time, probably since we picked up the (league) trophy in May. I have been in a wee bubble for the last six or seven weeks so it s big relief for myself and a big release of pressure,” said Lennon.
“It was a really tough tie. The first goal was huge, if it had gone to HJK Helsinki it would have given them a massive lift but overall, on the balance of the game, we were the far superior team.
“It was a really tough tie. Psychologically for me, it is big because I haven’t got through the last couple of years but we have built a good team here and they delivered tonight and answered a lot of questions.”
Neil Lennon’s side were defending a slender advantage after last week’s 2-1 win at Celtic Park, with HJK’s away goal meaning the Scottish champions could not rest on their laurels. As the match wore on goalless, the visitors’ nerves were tested, but eventually Ledley found the breakthrough and although Victor Wanyama was sent off soon after, Samaras completed the scoring four minutes from time.
Trying to kill off the tie early, Celtic had the best of a tight first half with Gary Hooper in particular proving a real handful for the HJK defense. The Bhoys could have taken the lead after 13 minutes as Scott Brown latched onto Charlie Mulgrew’s clipped pass, but the Celtic captain steered his effort past the post when one-on-one with goalkeeper Ville Wallén. HJK ended the half brightly, as Mika Väyrynen tested Celtic keeper Fraser Forster and Demba Savage went close, before Hooper was denied by Wallén at a tight angle.
HJK spurned a couple of good opportunities after the restart, as Forster first deflected Sebastian Sorsa’s shot narrowly past the post, before blocking Mathias Lindström’s header. On the 67th minute, however, Celtic took the lead, when Mulgrew’s cross picked out Ledley for a simple finish at the far post.
Home hopes were rekindled four minutes later as Wanyama was sent off after picking up a second yellow card. The hosts pressed forward but were unable to find a way through, and on 86 minutes Samaras ended any doubt, finding the corner of the net from Ledley’s assist to seal a play-off place for Lennon’s men. The UEFA Europa League play-offs now await HJK.