ANTHONY Stokes did his chances of an improved contract offer no harm with a man-of-the-match performance in Celtic’s 3-1 win at Tynecastle on Saturday, and he now hopes to give further proof of his value to the club with a starting place in Wednesday’s Champions League group-stage match in Milan.
The Irishman, who scored his team’s second goal against Hearts before laying on the third for new signing Teemu Pukki, has been in talks for some time about a deal to succeed his current contract, which runs out at the end of the season. His present form suggests he has not been adversely affected by the uncertainty about his future, but he would like the issue to be resolved as quickly as practicable.
“My agent spoke to the club a couple of months ago and I’m obviously eager to try to get it signed, but there’s not much I can do,” Stokes said. “I’m waiting to hear back from my agent and I’ll take it from there. I would like to get it sorted, to be honest with you, because I’ve only got seven or eight months left on my contract.”
Celtic’s initial offer of a new contract was declined by Stokes, and since then there has been little movement. But, with club and player apparently keen on prolonging their association, a resolution appears more likely than not, with the main question concerning the timing.
“As I said, it’s out of my hands and I’ll just keep playing my football and see what happens,” Stokes continued. “Listen, my agent spoke to them when I turned down the first contract, but we’re just waiting for the club to come back. I want to stay, but there’s not really been much more talk since the last contract, so I don’t know.”
Asked if the sort of display he gave against Hearts would help bring negotiations to a successful conclusion, he added: “I hope so, but you can just never tell. I’m happy enough with my form and the most important thing is that we’re winning games. It was a good performance against Hearts and I’m looking forward to Wednesday.
“I’m just playing my normal game and enjoying my football. It took me a while to come back from the injury last year, but I’m playing with no problems and no niggles.
“For any striker, to be in the team and scoring goals breeds confidence in yourself. I’m delighted with my form. Since I’ve come back from pre-season I’ve felt fit and strong and I just want to maintain it now. I’ve always felt comfortable and I’ve always enjoyed being here at the club. On days like Saturday, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve always enjoyed it, but this year has just started well, I suppose.”
Stokes played second fiddle to the now-departed Gary Hooper last year, but Celtic manager Neil Lennon believes he is showing he can take over from the Englishman.
“Anthony’s in a good place right now,” Lennon said. “He looks as if he’s taken on the mantle left by Gary Hooper and looking to show he’s the number one. He’s answering all the questions.
“We’ve offered him a new contract and I want to keep him here. I would like to see it sorted and the sooner the better.
“He has as good a chance as anyone,” Lennon continued when asked if the 25-year-old would start the Group H game against AC Milan. “I’ve been pleased with him for a while now. He is blossoming, he’s in great form and he’s more consistent than ever.
“And I thought the piece of skill he showed for our third goal for Pukki was magnificent. But, overall, he is playing very well.”
Lennon has predicted his team will be able to take a point in the San Siro, but Stokes has no doubt about just how hard Celtic will have to work if they are to do that. “I’ll let him say that. We’ll just go out, concentrate on our football and see what happens.
“You saw last year that anything can happen against any team. I didn’t have any experience of it, but hopefully it rubbed off on the lads who did. We’re all looking forward to it – massive games.
“The boys showed last year we can raise our game in Europe, but it’s going to be tough. We’re up against some of the best teams in the world, but we’ll go out to perform as well as we possibly can.
“[Milan’s] record in Europe speaks for itself. They’re one of the best European sides around and it’s going to be a difficult, difficult place to go. But we faced the same task last year and we did very well, so the boys who were involved last year have a little more experience this year.
“Over the last season or so our away record has improved. If you look over the years, our home record is phenomenal, but it’s not going to be easy. We’re up against top players in a hostile environment. We’ll just take it as it comes and see how it goes on the night.”
Pukki came off the bench against Hearts and looks set to be given the same role in Italy. Georgios Samaras and Charlie Mulgrew, the other substitutes then, should contend for a starting role, as will full-back Adam Matthews, who was taken off with an ankle knock towards half-time but is expected to be passed fit.
Debut scorer Pukki eyes San Siro
NEW striker Teemu Pukki is hoping to build on his debut goal at Tynecastle by playing a part in Celtic’s Champions League group opener against AC Milan in Italy on Wednesday.
The Finn, who arrived from from Schalke just before the transfer window closed, came off the bench to score his new side’s third goal against Hearts and then outlined his desire to play a prominent role in Europe’s premier competition after getting a taste of it last year. “It is a big thing for me to play again in the Champions League,” said Pukki. “Last year, I also played with Schalke but not as a starting player, so I’m hoping to play a lot of games in the Champions League.”
Pukki sees no reason why Celtic can’t give a good account of themselves in a section which also contains Ajax and Barcelona. “I think we’ve a very good squad and I think we have a good chance,” said the 23-year-old. “It is not such an easy group, but of course we believe in ourselves and we’re looking to go through.”