NEIL Lennon has divulged the full extent of Celtic’s concern over the mystery virus which hospitalised James Forrest for five days last month, revealing there were initial fears the winger had contracted the life-threatening disease meningitis.
Forrest is set to play a key role in Celtic’s crucial Champions League Group H matchday three fixture against Ajax in Glasgow tonight, having now recovered from the viral complaint which caused so much anxiety. It ruled him out of Celtic’s matchday one defeat by AC Milan in Italy and restricted him to a late substitute appearance in the 1-0 home loss to Barcelona on matchday two.
The 22-year-old has been reluctant to discuss his illness, which has yet to be definitively diagnosed. But Celtic manager Lennon has spoken of his relief that Forrest has overcome the problem and is now ready to play a full part once more in the Scottish champions’ quest to reach the last 16 of Europe’s elite tournament for the second successive year.
“We first thought it could have been meningitis, but thankfully it wasn’t as serious as that,” said Lennon.
“When you hear something like that, you think ‘Wow’. It just came out of the blue because we had seen him on the Friday when he came back from Macedonia with Scotland last month. He wasn’t fit to play but we thought he’d be okay to travel to Milan. Obviously he wasn’t. But thankfully he is over it and looking a lot healthier.
“We haven’t really got to the bottom of what it was. He lost a stone in weight and scared us all, really. But he has recovered well. The ten days for the most recent international break gave us a good opportunity to get some conditioning work into him and get his weight back up as well.”
Forrest scored the dramatic stoppage-time goal against Shakhter Karagandy at the end of August which secured Celtic’s place in the lucrative group phase of the Champions League. Lennon is confident he can now make a significant impact in the remainder of the campaign, with his creativity all the more vital tonight for Celtic in the absence of the injured Kris Commons.
The hamstring problem sustained by Commons in Saturday’s Scottish Premiership fixture against Hibs at Easter Road meant Forrest was thrown into action earlier than planned. But his superbly struck goal which earned Celtic a 1-1 draw was hugely encouraging for Lennon.
“James was a wee bit apprehensive about starting the game on Saturday,” added Lennon. “We wanted to start him, but he was a bit wary, so we named him among the subs. He came on sooner than expected with Kris going off and he looked great. I was really pleased with his contribution.
“He always gives us another dimension. It’s just a shame Kris is injured because we haven’t really had both him and James on the same pitch for a Champions League game. Maybe for 20 minutes when James came on as a sub in Moscow last season. It’s great having James back, although it’s massive to lose Kris.
“But I think James can handle the expectation which is on him. He is good enough. Two years ago, he played in Italy against Udinese and was the best player on the pitch. He then came on in Moscow last season and changed the game for us. He is one whose condition we always need to keep an eye on, whether it be physical or viral. We need to monitor him as much as we can. He always wants to play but sometimes that can be detrimental to him in the long term.
“If he is fit and healthy going into the game on Tuesday night, which we hope he is, then he is good enough to give any team problems.”
Lennon’s team selection will be dependent on a fitness test this morning for Swedish right-back Mikael Lustig. He was absent at Easter Road on Saturday after suffering a hip injury playing for his country last week. With Adam Matthews already a long-term absentee, Celtic gave 19-year-old English right-back Darnell Fisher his debut against Hibs.
While Lennon expressed his satisfaction with Fisher’s performance, he is understandably keen to see the experienced Lustig return to action. Emilio Izaguirre is definitely available to return at left-back following an illness, while Lennon also has to reshape his midfield in the absence of captain Scott Brown who begins a three-match suspension imposed by Uefa for his dismissal against Barcelona three weeks ago.
“I’ve got one or two decisions to make,” added Lennon. “We will see how Mikael is in the morning. He looked okay today. Darnell was very composed and mature on his debut. We were delighted with him and it gives us confidence in him.
“There is just one more position we have to debate overnight. It might be in the middle of the park – it might be at left-back. Beram Kayal is definitely in contention to start in midfield with Scott being out. But so is Nir Biton, so is Joe Ledley.”
Whatever the composition of his side, Lennon insists they will not be forced into a more cautious approach than normal in the absence of Commons. “Not at all,” he said.
“We are at home. We want to try and win the game. We will have plenty of attacking options on the pitch.”