Archive for August, 2012

Swede Dreams are made of this. Two recent straws point to a Celtic triumph

Helsingborg Two more straws favour Celtic

All the consideration of the respective merits of potential Champions League opponents has now been rendered completely irrelevant. With brutal simplicity the matter has been boiled down to a single truth. To reach the coveted Group Stages place, Celtic have to overcome Helsingborgs IF in a two leg tie; away in Sweden on Tuesday evening, the 21st, and back at Celtic Park for the decisive second leg on August 29th.

So what awaits Celtic in this challenge, and how likely is it that the dream of Group Stage qualification will be realised?

There are two pieces of good news from the last few days which make Celtic an even stronger favourite to progress than they were when the draw was made last week. The first is that on Wednesday of last week Helsingborg sold their most dangerous player. Helsingborg are a competent rather than strong team. Despite being Swedish champions only one of their players made the squad for Euro 2012 and their non-Swedish players are hardly international class stars. On an individual basis the Celtic player pool is far more talented and diverse than the Helsingborg one. Helsingborg do not have a single player of class and distinction, no-one that Celtic need pay particular attention to in order to stifle their threat.

His departure days before the Celtic game a major blow to Helsinborg

Remarkably, the player most likely to have posed a danger to Celtic, Alfred Finnbogason, has been transferred within the last few days to Heerenveen of Holland. Finnbogason signed for Helsingborg on loan in March 2012 and in 5 months contributed around 20 goals, making him by far their most dangerous strike threat. A crucial goal against Slask Wroclaw in the last qualifying Round first leg in Poland emphasised his level of ability. Helsingborg had hoped to sign Finnbogason, an Icelandic internationalist, on a permanent basis but Heerenveen made his Belgian club Lokeren a much higher offer, and Finnbogason himself was clear that a transfer to Holland was a superior career move to remaining permanently in Sweden. So last week, just days before Helsingborg’s biggest game ever, he jumped ship, not even hanging around to see them face Celtic.

The effect on Helsingborg is a bit like as if Celtic had sold Gary Hooper this week. The move will certainly greatly diminish the attacking threat to Celtic from Helsingborg. Celtic fans will not tremble at the news that Helsingborg have replaced Finnbogason with Alexander Bedoya from Rangers. Particularly since it seems their intention to play this midfielder as a striker. The only other striker of note Helsingborg have is the Norwegian Thomas Sorum, a fairly pedestrian player although he did score a hattrick against Slask Wroclaw in the last round. They also have Alvaro Santos, a Brazilian much loved by their fans. But this adoration is due more to his role in securing their previous League title in 1999 rather than any more recent exploits. Alvaro Santos is at best a journeyman who has served mediocre European clubs without particular distinction for a decade before returning to Helsingborg where his fitness has not been in any great evidence. He has only contributed 3 league goals since his return. So not a lot to fear up front.

The other piece of good news is that while Celtic may be slightly discomfited by the embarrassment of their failure to beat Ross County on Saturday, Helsingborg suffered a much more devastating blow to their morale the same day. Beaten 2-1 by the league leaders, their traditional deadly rivals Elsborg, Helsinmgborg almost certainly relinquished all remaining hope of hanging onto their league title. The defeat by their neighbours leaves them 10 points behind Elfsborg with only 11 games left. They did put up a fight, leading 1-0 at halftime before succumbing in a gruelling second half, the physical and mental strain of which is hardly good preparation for the game against Celtic only some 72 hours later. The Helsingborg goal was scored by Bedoya, justifying some of the faith put in him by the coach but really the man is no striker. Sorum, the main man up front, struggled and was replaced halfway through the second half. Alvaro Santos did come on later but showed nothing to worry Celtic in his belated return to competitive action.

Helsingborg tend to play  a conventional 4:4:2, or at least did until Finnbogason’s transfer. Tomorrow, if Helsingborgs really try to win,  Sorum is likely to be joined by Alvaro Santos. If they play more cautiously Bedoya will probably play in the hole slightly behind Sorum.

Par Hansson the only current Swedish internationalist

The Helsinborg defence is well marshalled by keeper Par Hannson, who played all three of Sweden’s Euro 2012 games. He is a sound enough keeper but not outstanding. In front of him is an aging back four, well-organised but without great individual talent. The midfield four are a diverse and polyglot lot. In the middle normally are Gashi, born in Kosovo but now playing for Norway and May Mahlangu, a 23 year old South African internationalist. On the flanks will probably be any two from Bouaouzan a Dutch player of some distinction, and two veteran Swedes, Lindstrom and Anderssen. The two recent signings Bedoya and David Accam a young Ghanaian will probably feature at some stage.

The main danger for Celtic is likely to come from the experience and savvy of the manager, Age Hareide rather than any of his players. Hareide is one of the few managers to have coached title winning sides in three different European countries, if only Sweden Norway and Denmark. He was the coach when Helsingborg won their title in 1999 but is probably best known for an undistinguished spell as boss of Norway following  a title success with Rosenborg. He did not coach Helsingborg to their current title, only taking over, on a temporary basis, when the title winning coach left unexpectedly. Hareide was welcomed back by the Helsingborg faithful but while hugely experienced and crafty, he is not known for an adventurous spirit and is unlikely to send out  a team to attack Celtic relentlessly from the start.

All told Celtic should be far superior to this Helsingborg side and should be able to bring a favourable result back from the tight Olimpia Stadium, before comfortably securing their Group Stage place before their own fans on the 29th.

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Celtic should pray for Israel

Who should Celtic supporters pray to come out the urn with Celtic?

Well, for all that GGW had before the Third Round Draw identified HJK Helsinki as the weakest opponents available for Celtic, disposing of them proved slightly more difficult than might have been expected. However in the end the professionalism and concentration of Neil Lennon’s team allied to their individual and tactical superiority, was sufficient to see them safely through to the 4th and final Knockout Round  of the Champions League. Now only one two legged tie stands between Celtic and the place in the Group Stages of the Champions League which their history and tradition and size  entitles them to expect as their just due.

So which opponents should Celtic supporters include in their prayers tonight to be the preferred opponents  to be drawn against Celtic in Friday’s draw?

All 5 of the clubs pre-identified as the 5 seeded clubs for the 4th Knockout Round (Champions Route) draw made it through safely enough. Given that Celtic are one of them, ranked 3rd, this guarantees that Celtic cannot be drawn against Anderlecht, Basle, BATE Borissov or Dinamo Zagreb. The first two, both ranked above Celtic, would have been difficult opposition, the latter two both ranked below Celtic would have been easier to beat.

The five possible opponents, in order of their ranking are

CFR Cluj of Romania

Helsingborg of Sweden

Maribor of Slovenia

AEL Limassol of Cyprus

Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel

However the level of difficulty as opponents does not correspond to their co-efficient ranking.

Helsingborg beatable but best avoided

Helsingborg are the team currently in best European form and most to be feared. They are far superior in both talent and tactical sophistication to HJK Helsinki. They defeated the dangerous Polish Champions Slask Wroclaw with  victories in both legs. Hopefully Celtic will avoid them but if they are paired together, then there should be no despair. On their best form, Celtic are well capable of being a better side than the Swedish champions. Helsingborg are not seen by most Swedes as being as good as last year’s champions Malmo who only eliminated Rangers because of the tactical naivety of the new Ibrox manager. They are only in 6th place in this year’s Swedish League. Still, they are the main one to be avoided.

CFR Cluj and AEL Limassol are stuffy teams both of whom emerged from the 3rd Round with home and away leg wins, against the champions of the Czech Republic and Serbia, two strong European powers. On that form both would be capable of stretching Celtic but both should be well within the capability of the current Celtic team to eliminate. Both are significantly stronger than the other two teams available, so on that basis, while not to be feared they are better avoided given a weaker alternative.

Many Celtic supporters will probably hope the draw pairs their club against Maribor, as another way of sticking one to Rangers who succumbed to Maribor, without being in any way outclassed, in this stage of last season, albeit in the Europa League. While Celtic could rightly be fairly confident about progression if drawn against Maribor the Slovenians are not the weakest of the 5 possible opponents.

Hapoel Still the best bet

That distinction belongs to Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel. Their level of competence was probably amply demonstrated on Wednesday night when only a last minute goal prevented them from losing away to Neftchi Baku, easily the weakest of the 20 teams in the 3rd Round. Celtic would have little to fear other than their own capacity for complacency and slackness in being drawn against Hapoel, while  a trip to Israel should prove a pleasant diversion for both players and supporters.

So while all 5 possible opponents are teams which Celtic should be capable of beating, Helsinborg are the ones best avoided and Maribor and especially Hapoel are the ones to hope come out the draw paired with Celtic.

GGW will provide a full profile here of whichever opponents emerge from Friday’s draw

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