THERE was a time that mentioning Georgios Samaras in the same sentence as Henrik Larsson would have had Celtic-supporting lynch mobs beating a path to your door.
The fifth away European tie of the season for Neil Lennon’s side, which pits them against Benfica in a potentially momentous Champions League group game on Tuesday, demands comparison between the pair. It does so by dint of the fact it presents the Greek with an opportunity to usurp the great Swede.
Samaras, with the help of a couple of kindly deflections, has been credited with goals in every one of Celtic’s on-the-road assignments in the past four months. Not since Larsson did so in earliest rounds of two UEFA Cup tilts between 1998 and 1999, has a player at the club scored in four straight European away games. Celtic’s peerless goal plunderer of recent times couldn’t make it five. Neither, for that matter has any other player at the club. If Samaras does so in two days, there is every chance it will be part of all sorts of history – owing to the fact that a win for Barcelona in their game at Spartak Moscow earlier on Tuesday evening would allow Celtic to progress for the last 16 were they to snatch a score draw in Lisbon’s Stadium of Light.
Celtic’s agm last week inevitably reminded of the comment from Lennon at the previous year’s shareholder gathering when he said the insouciant character was the sort of player “who could get me the sack” on being harangued about his continued selection of Samaras as Celtic struggled to keep pace with Rangers. A year on the Celtic manager was able to point to that league being won because of the rangy performer’s ability to “play teams on his own at times”. A “long and frank chat” two years ago cleared the air between the pair, Lennon recalled, and was the first step towards Samaras being able to play in an atmosphere not polluted by boos from his own fans. Made captain for the win over Barcelona, in part as appreciation from Lennon for having struggled back from an ankle injury while not fully fit, the 27-year-old was given a standing ovation as he left the pitch. No player in Celtic’s history has every completed such a spectacular turnaround in the followers’ affections.
“For me that speaks volumes for him as a person,” said Lennon. “There wasn’t any doubt about his talent but it was just about his consistency, which he has found now. Now, he’s never been prolific, we know that, but he weighs in with important goals at times and brings something to the team that others don’t. Particularly in Europe, where he is very, very important to the way we play.
“This season has been pretty stop-start with injury. He had the elbow injury when he was away with Greece then we got him back in for the Moscow game. He didn’t play great because it was his first game for two or three weeks but we know we will get something out of him [and he scored the winner]. He has definitely become more consistent. I think the players respect him, what he did in the Euros, what he has done for us in Europe, what he has done for us domestically.”
And what he wants to continue doing, Samaras has shown no desire to move away even when there seemed 50,000 Celtic supporters who would have personally driven him all the way to Azerbaijan if he’d found a club there. “He loves it here,” said Lennon. “He loves the club, and the supporters have really taken to him now. When he’s fully fit and flowing, he’s a tremendous player. He’s a very intelligent boy, a great professional, and he’s never given me one day’s problem.”