IT was a test of character and an examination of nerve on a pitch probably not fit for purpose.
But although the grass beneath their studs was plastic – and even if they made heavy weather of it for longer than Neil Lennon’s heart would have liked – Celtic were the only real deal.
Goals from Joe Ledley and Georgios put Scotland’s champions into tomorrow’s draw for the final round of qualifiers and gave our ailing game a boost, even though Victor Wanyama was sent off before the win was secured.
Well, what did we expect? this is Celtic in Europe and such nights seldom run smoothly but they will be operating in Europe for the next six months at least.
Lennon and rival boss Antti Muurinen had agreed this big lump of green carpet would be soaked until it could take no more.
They were. and it could not.
But it still looked pretty dubious and treacherous. Mind you, so did parts of the Celtic manager’s starting line-up – one area in particular.
The centre of Lennon’s defence is like a Bermuda Triangle. All number of men have gone missing in there and most of them disappear for good. then there’s the curious case of Thomas Rogne who comes and goes without warning.
The big Norwegian was overlooked for the first leg but here he was right back in the thick of it on a night which looked likely to test his temperament as much as his technique.
Scott Brown’s mettle has never been in doubt, only his creaking hip joint. But the skipper took a jab to play and ought to have stroked his side towards the next round with 12 minutes gone.
The Scotland man timed a forward run to perfection to saunter clear through the heart of the defence on to a long probe from Charlie Mulgrew.
Suddenly Brown found himself in on goal but poked a shot wide from 12 yards when he should have scored.
It was a bad miss and another followed soon after when Samaras cut in from the left but flashed a volley wide.
Lennon’s anxiety levels were not helped by the showboating of Austrian ref Robert Schorgenhofer.
When Kris Commons complained about his decision making one too many times the official brandished a yellow card with the flourish of a man happy at his work, like a traffic warden writing a ticket.
But in 28 minutes Schorgenhofer and one of his helpers called it right when they ruled out a Gary Hooper strike after he had latched on to a wayward Wanyama shot in an offside position before slotting calmly beyond keeper Ville Wallen. Celtic’s opponents were even more limited on their own synthetic surface.
Gambian winger Demba Savage fired one early shot over the top from 20 yards and 10 minutes before half-time he was exposed in toe-curling fashion when he made an amateurish mess of HJK’s only real chance of the half.
Savage found himself walking on to a volley at Fraser Forster’s back post after being picked out by Sebastian Sorsa’s hanging cross. But the wide man swiped at it and connected only with fresh air.
The sight of Helsinki nearly storming into a lead in the opening minute of the second half was almost beyond belief.
Adam Matthews thought he was ushering the ball out for a throw but was robbed by left-back Mikko Sumusalo who surged forward before drilling a cut back across the box and into the path of Sorsa whose first-time shot might have drilled into the bottom corner of Forster’s net had Emilo Izaguirre not rushed back to clip it behind for a corner.
Suddenly these Finnish minnows were beginning to fancy their chances and Celtic had to make them pipe down.
Wanyama tried to do exactly that in 52 minutes when he smashed a header towards the target but it was blocked at point-blank range by Timi Lahti.
Celtic screamed for a penalty but Schorgenhofer waved the appeals away then raced to the halfway line to book Mulgrew for a foul which stopped Sumusalo breaking at full speed. Wanyama followed him into the book for the first time soon after.
The tension had just been racked up by several notches.
Just after the hour it almost got on top of Forster who fumbled nervously at a close-range header from Mathias Lindstrom and just about managed to get it away for a corner. Celtic now were in urgent need of a settler.
And Mulgrew went out of his way to deliver it in 67 minutes with a wonderful piece of play to lay the opener on a plate for Ledley.
Greek striker Georgios Samaras celebrates sealing the win
The big centre-back brought the ball out from the back then worked a slick exchange with Samaras before setting off down the right with a little flurry of step-overs.
Finally, he worked the ball back on to his left foot and whipped in a cross which eliminated Wallen and left Ledley needing only to chest the ball up over the grounded keeper and looping into the back of his net.
It was a glorious moment for Lennon who came bounding off his bench to punch holes in the cool night air. Celtic were almost there now. almost.
Of course, it’s never that simple on these away days.
No sooner had Lennon settled back into his seat than Wanyama was being shown a second yellow card, this time for a trip on Mika Varynen. Again, Schorgenhofer looked a little too pleased with himself as a distraught Wanyana buried his face in his shirt before making the long walk.
Lennon reacted by replacing Hooper with Kayal, Commons with James Forrest and sending Samaras up top on his own.
And four minutes from time the Greek delivered Celtic into the hat for one final, nerve-shredding qualification double-header when he strode on to a perfect Ledley cut-back to lash a terrific low drive in at keeper Wallen’s left-hand post.