AS he enjoys the 18-degree temperature and winter sunshine at Celtic’s mid-season training camp in Turkey this week, Fraser Forster could be excused taking some time out to relax.
But, while it will not exactly be all work and no play for the big goalkeeper on the Mediterranean coast, he is striving to maintain the focus and concentration he believes have been key to Celtic’s dominant domestic form in the campaign so far.
A 13-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership while remaining unbeaten after their first 20 games, has been carved out in tandem with a demanding European schedule in which Celtic played 12 matches in the qualifying rounds and group stage of the Champions League in the first half of the season.
Despite the disappointment of finishing bottom of their Champions League group behind Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, Forster believes Celtic have developed greater mental stamina than they had last season when their run to the last 16 of the tournament came against the backdrop of regularly dropped points in the SPL.
“We have picked up a lot more results following Champions League games than we did last year, so we have better experience there,” said Forster. “Although we were disappointed by the Champions League results this season, there was less of a hangover after it. We are a year older and a bit more experienced, obviously, off the back of last season when we played Champions League games and then went into domestic games. Everyone has done well and contributed.”
Forster’s own contribution has been one of solid reliability, keeping 16 clean sheets so far this season. Half of those have come in Celtic’s last eight domestic fixtures, allowing them to target two all-time club records of consecutive domestic clean sheets – ten in the league (1913-14 and 1921-22) and 13 overall (1913-14) as detailed in The Scotsman yesterday.
“It’s been brilliant and something we have wanted to keep going,” said Forster of Celtic’s current run of keeping out the opposition. We’ve not been at our best over the last few weeks but we have ground out wins, which is the most important thing at the end of the day – picking up the three points. If you can perform well, it’s an added bonus and we have been pleased to keep the run going. We are high in confidence.”
Forster’s own confidence is consistently boosted by the support of his manager Neil Lennon who brought him to Glasgow from Newcastle United three and a half years ago. Since then, Forster has kept 87 clean sheets in 175 first-team appearances for the Scottish champions – form which has earned him a place in the England squad.
Lennon observed recently that Forster’s success in winning his first England cap as a Celtic player in the friendly against Chile last November was among his proudest moments since taking charge of the club.
“He [Lennon] has done a lot for me and I will always be very grateful for that,” added Forster.
“He brought me to the club and has shown a lot of faith in me, and it’s very nice for him to say that.”
Celtic are in action at 6:30pm this evening when they face Turkish Super League side Trabzonspor in the first semi-final of the Antalya Cup tournament at the Akdeniz University Stadium.Turkish champions Galatasaray face Dutch champions Ajax in the second semi-final tomorrow, with a third/fourth-place play-off on Saturday followed by the final on Sunday.
“It’s been nice to have a change of scenery and come away, get some sun and get some work done,” Forster told Celtic TV. “I have just been working hard with Woodsy [goalkeeping coach Stevie Woods] and in the gym, and just trying to keep doing what I have always done. Hopefully, I can keep going. There is still a lot of time left this season so it’s important to keep the run going and keep putting in the performances.”
Virgil van Dijk wants to see Celtic return from their winter break refreshed and ready to continue their formidable form in the Scottish Premiership in the second half of the season.
Van Dijk hopes the Scottish champions reap the benefits of the warm-weather training when they resume league business upon their return.
The defender told CelticTV: “Hopefully, we can keep the unbeaten run until the end of the season and not concede any goals for as long as possible.
“We will see what happens. We are 20 games unbeaten so it’s good to come here on the back of that.
“We are relaxing and will enjoy the sun.”
Van Dijk added: “All the boys have played a lot of games. We have to take a rest now and we will take it. The weather is good. The sun is out and there are blue skies.
“It’s much better than it was in Glasgow. It gets you smiling again and makes you happy. The conditions here are very good and we are looking forward to the game tomorrow night.”