For the first time in four years, Celtic will play in the Champions League groups stage after completing a comfortable victory over Helsingborgs.
Celtic carried a 2-0 advantage after the first leg in Sweden and soon added to their advantage when Gary Hooper poked home on 30 minutes. Helsingborgs keeper Par Hansson made a good double save denying first Scott Brown and then Tony Watt but could not keep out Victor Wanyama’s powerful header. James Forrest slammed a shot against the post late in the second half.
It was a night to savour for the Celtic fans, who will await Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw with excitement and some apprehension. Celtic Park rocked to the sound of a boisterous crowd, revelling in their return to the biggest stage in club football. Manager Neil Lennon had been telling anyone who cared to listen since last weeks away win in Sweden that getting there was far from a formality.
His caution looked prudent as a lively Helsingborgs enjoyed plenty of attacking possession in the opening stages, threatening to take the fight to Celtic. However it came to little as, after 15 minutes Helsingborgs only had a wayward shot by Alejandro Bedoya to show for their efforts, barely troubling goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
Georgios Samaras almost put the tie to bed just after the 20-minute mark. The Greek forward brushed aside two defenders as he burst down the left, but his attempt to curl the ball in at the far post instead nestled comfortably in Hansson’s grasp. That break by Samaras appeared to shake Celtic out of their torpor and the crowd started to play their part, loudly appealing for a penalty as Forrest’s mazy run ended with the winger tumbling under Joseph Baffo’s challenge, but play was allowed to continue.
Moments later Samaras crossed forcing Hansson into a save, conceding the corner as he turned the ball over the bar. From the resulting corner the ball fell to Brown lurking on the edge of the box, his miscued shot landed at the feet of Samaras who pulled the ball into the path of Hooper who saw his shot squirm in off the post. The visitors appealed for offside but it was in vain and Celtic had effectively put the tie beyond the Swedish side.
It took Helsingborgs 51 minutes before Forster was forced into making a save, but it was a good one when it came. Jere Uronen rifled a 30-yard free kick toward goal, but the keeper pushed it round his left-hand post for a corner. Nikola Djurdic tamely shot into the side netting shortly thereafter before May Mahlangu drove a fierce shot towards the Celtic goal requiring Forster to take two attempts at gathering the ball.
Celtic allowed the Swedes plenty of possession in the second half as they had in the first, although now Helsingborgs were starting to create genuine chances. It could have been different for the Swedish side as they could have had a man sent off after 62 minutes. Substitute David Accam, only just on the pitch, crudely took Emilio Izaguirre out of play but Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo showed some leniency by only brandishing a yellow card.
In the closing stages of the tie, Forrest was denied a superb goal by the upright of Hansson’s goal. The winger’s sweet strike rattling back into the path of Hooper who was wrongly flagged for offside, his shot only hiting the opposing post in any case. Forrest was hitting his stride and started another move ended with Hansson producing good saves to deny first Brown and the substitute Watt. Despite Hansson’s efforts Celtic’s second goal followed shortly thereafter as Wanyama rose highest at the resulting corner to head in Celtic’s second goal of the night.
Wanyama’s goal rounded off a polished performance by Neil Lennon’s side, who will now begin to contemplate what Thursday’s draw will bring as Celtic begin their European adventure in earnest.