CELTIC winger James Forrest hasn’t started for his club in more than three months but now declares himself “buzzing to get back playing” having recovered from a second hamstring problem.
The Scottish Cup tie against Raith Rovers today will be too soon for him to be given a first XI berth, but, with game time expected at Kirkcaldy and when Scotland face Estonia in Wednesday’s friendly, his manager Neil Lennon could have the Forrest dimension to deploy in the Champions League last-16 encounter against Juventus in nine days’ time. Like the 21-year-old himself, that could be a game-changer.
“James will make us better,” the Irishman says. “When he’s on form, there aren’t many better, to tell you the truth. If we can keep him fit for the two Champions League games then that will be a huge bonus for us, we have missed him.
“I know things have been going well for us, including the qualification in the Champions League.
“But eventually you do need players like James. We’ve had to sort of change the shape of the team, play a diamond, because we’ve had no natural width. We’ll go with the three sometimes top because we’ve got no natural width. Our favoured formation is either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. With Jamesy back in, we’ll use it a lot more now.”
The momentous moments of Forrest’s career mirror those of Lennon, acknowledges the Celtic manager, who gave the youngster his debut in 2010. It was Forrest who “grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck” to save Celtic the day they found themselves 3-0 down at Kilmarnock. It was his display in Udinese last season that convinced us Lennon’s side were European compatible. A point reiterated when Forrest was instrumental in their first ever Champions League away win, in Moscow in October.
“He’s a huge asset for us because of his quality and his pace,” says Lennon. “At that European level you need pace and he’s got that in abundance. We played him just off the two strikers against Udinese. He’s one of those players who adapts very quickly to whatever you tell him to do. He has good football intelligence. We asked him to do a specific role that night and I thought he was fantastic.
“He made a real different to us that night he came on in Moscow. I wouldn’t say he changed the game because the team was playing really well, but he added to things. We put him on and he was up against a really quick full-back — and he gave him all sorts of problems. Again, it didn’t faze him going into that environment. James is always forward thinking, always positive, the first thing on his mind is to take people on… and nine times out of ten he gets the better of them.”
As a pair who have grown together, Lennon’s mentor role also allows him to slate Forrest and it makes the right difference. “James knows my methods, knows what I demand of him. He’s one of those kids I can go through and I get the response,” the Celtic manager says.
“James is a strong character. He doesn’t go under with criticism, he actually goes the other way. We were playing in the League Cup at Hibs last year and I had a right go at him at half time. Then he went out in the second half and was brilliant, scoring two and we won by four. He was fantastic. Whenever we’ve needed him in big games he’s produced.”