Celtic has taken a giant step closer to the UEFA Champions League group stages for the first time since season 2008-09 with a 2-0 away victory over IF Helsingborgs.
Neil Lennon’s side lined up in an adventurous 4-3-3 formation, with Beram Kayal flanked by Scott Brown and Joe Ledley in midfield.
Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons provided the width up top, with Gary Hooper at center forward.
Before the match had settled into any kind of pattern, Celtic’s two wide men combined to give Celtic a dream start in the second minute.
Samaras whipped over a swerving cross from the left flank for Commons to show excellent technique to volley home.
Normally when Celtic play away from home in Europe, they lose a goal in the first few minutes before going on to have a shambolic first half.
This time, in a welcome change, they scored a quick goal of their own––before going on to have a shambolic first half.
After catching their hosts cold, Celtic’s formation seemed unsuited for the task in hand, with plenty of room between the defence and midfield for the Swedish champions to exploit.
Fraser Forster, in goal for Celtic, made two excellent saves from Helsingborg’s USA international Alejandro Bedoya and Nikola Djurdic.
The save from Djurdic in particular was impressive, with the Serbian through on goal in a central position. Forster stayed on his feet and when Djurdic tried to chip the ball over him, the English keeper comfortably swatted it away to safety.
Celtic’s main problem in that first half was profligacy in possession and a lack of composure––deficiencies which will be severely punished if displayed in the group stages of the competition.
This was seen in microcosm midway through the half when Helsingborg cleared the ball from a Celtic corner to the waiting Adam Matthews on the halfway line.
The young Welsh fullback attempted to pass the ball back to Forster in the Celtic goal, but under pressure from May Mahlangu took a fresh air swipe, leaving the South African midfielder haring clean through on Forster.
Fortunately for Matthews and Celtic, his searing pace allowed him to get in front of Mahlangu on the edge of the penalty box and he managed to do enough to see the ball safely back to Forster while the Helsingborg crowd made half-hearted appeals for a penalty.
It was a fraught first half for Celtic, but they reached halftime with that early lead intact.
The second half was better for Celtic, although they were never comfortable until Samaras rose at the back post to head in a Commons corner in the 75th minute.
Celtic’s formation changed to 4-4-2 in the second half, with the injured Beram Kayal being replaced by James Forrest.
Forrest took the right midfield berth, with Commons playing in a withdrawn role behind Hooper. Ledley joined Brown in the center while Samaras slotted into the left midfield position.
The play continued to head in the direction of the Celtic goal, and Thomas Rogne could consider himself fortunate to be shown only a yellow card after handling the ball as Helsgingborg forward Thomas Sorum attempted to play it past him on the edge of the penalty box.
The resultant free kick was easily saved by Forster.
A bright spot in the second half for Celtic was the return of James Forrest who showed electric pace and good close control to frequently terrorise Helsingborg’s left back Jere Uronen.
The wind was taken from Helsingborg’s sails after Celtic notched their second, and while by that stage Helsingborg could justifiably point to several missed chances, Celtic had previously seen a Ledley header hit the top of the crossbar and went on to come close on two occasions to adding a third.
First Samaras latched onto a clearance on the left and flew past Sadiku, before bursting into the penalty box.
From a position on the left of the box, he elected to ignore the waiting Commons in the center and take a shot himself.
His attempt to curl the ball in at the far post drifted wide.
Celtic came closer a few minutes later after another darting run and pass from Forrest was left by Commons on the edge of the box for Charlie Mulgrew, whose shot crashed off the crossbar.
By this stage, Celtic was playing with far more confidence and composure––looking far more likely to add to the lead than Helsingborg did to pulling one back.
Barring a major catastrophe Wednesday next, Champions League soccer looks like it will be returning to Celtic Park after a four year absence.
Player of the match: Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who saved his team on several occasions. The big Englishman dominated his penalty box and proved an impassable barrier for the Helsingborg attack.
Helsingborg: Hansson (c), Uronen, Atta, Sadiku, Wahlstedt (Accam 63), Andersson, Gashi, Mahlangu, Bedoya, Sorum (Alvaro 65), Djurdic
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Rogne, Mulgrew, Izaguirre, Brown (c), Kayal (Forrest 46), Ledley (Wilson 66), Commons (Watt 89), Hooper, Samaras
Follow Daniel O'Connell on twitter @DanielOConnel18