ANYONE who shares Celtic’s renewed sense of optimism about their prospects of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League will still find bookmakers more than willing to accommodate their confidence.
Tuesday night’s crucial 2-1 win over Ajax at Celtic Park certainly propelled Neil Lennon’s side firmly back into the qualification mix in Group H but they remain big outsiders as far as the oddsmakers are concerned, priced as long as 14-1 to reach the knockout phase.
The picture will become a little clearer after matchday four on 6 November, when avoiding defeat in the Amsterdam ArenA will be the basic requirement for the Scottish champions. If that can be coupled with a home win for Barcelona against AC Milan the same evening, a result which would confirm the Catalan top seeds’ place in the last 16 with two games to spare, Lennon and his players will have their sights firmly fixed on upsetting the odds for a second consecutive season in Europe’s elite tournament.
The visit of AC Milan to Glasgow on 26 November is already shaping up as the defining fixture for Celtic, potentially giving them the chance to have their destiny in their own hands when they travel to Barcelona for the final matchday on 11 December.
When it comes to defining moments of this particular Champions League adventure, James Forrest is emerging as the central character for Celtic. The Scotland winger netted the priceless stoppage-time winner against Shakhter Karagandy in the play-off round tie at the end of August and proved the man for the big occasion again on Tuesday.
After a torrid few weeks which saw him laid low by a mysterious viral complaint, Forrest restored Celtic’s Champions League hopes to robust health with his nervelessly converted penalty kick at the end of the first half. The 22-year-old was something of a surprise choice for spot-kick duty, given the presence of more experienced forwards Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras on the pitch.
But Forrest proved more than a match for the time-wasting tactics of the Ajax players, whose antics forced him to wait two minutes from the award of the penalty to being able to take it, as he drove the ball firmly and precisely beyond goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
It was such a consummate job that it would be easy to believe Forrest works on his penalty technique religiously in training.
“No, I don’t practise them at all,” he said. “Sometimes before a cup tie, the boys will take a few on the training ground in case it goes to a shoot-out. But other than that, I don’t practise them. I’ve always said I want to take them in games, though.
“You need to earn the job. A few of the boys earned it before me and a few have missed, which happens. I got asked on the morning of the game if I wanted to be on the penalties and I said yes right away.
“I’d only taken one before for the first team [in a 5-0 league win over Dundee last season] and scored it. As soon as we got awarded the penalty against Ajax, I knew I was going to hit it. There was a wee bit of nerves, but I was excited to have the chance to hit it.
“The goalkeeper was trying to play mind games but it maybe just made me concentrate even more. Nobody actually said anything to me as I was waiting, but the way the defenders and keeper were acting, they were doing everything to try and put me off.
“I just stayed focused on what I was going to do with the ball once everything had settled down. By the time the keeper was back on his line, I knew where I was putting it. When I ran up, I stuck by what I’d originally thought as he was walking back.
“When I’ve taken penalties in the past, going back to youth games, I’ve always tended to mix up how I’ve taken them. It’s just down to how you feel and what you’re thinking at the time.
“I think when Kris Commons comes back into the team, he’ll probably still be first-choice penalty taker as his record is good. I’ll step aside if he wants back on them. But I was just glad to score such an important one to help us get the three points.”
It was Forrest’s first full 90 minutes since the second leg of the Karagandy tie on 28 August. While he remains unwilling to discuss his debilitating illness, which saw him hospitalised for five days and which Lennon revealed this week was initially feared to be meningitis, he expressed his relief at the extent of his recovery.
“I’m just glad to get through 90 minutes again,” he said. “I felt good and it was a big boost to get that under my belt after being out for a while. I felt fit and managed the full game fine. Hopefully I’m able to kick on from here now.”
Although Celtic had to spend much of Tuesday night’s game without the ball, they were not unduly troubled by an Ajax side whose lack of a cutting edge in the attacking third of the pitch contributed significantly to their downfall.
The Dutch champions’ home record suggests they will be a different proposition on their own patch in a fortnight, but Celtic striker Stokes believes they can handle the studied style of Frank de Boer’s men.
“You have to stay disciplined against Ajax,” said the Irish international. “They like to keep it at the back but they are not really hurting you. They go back to the keeper, then back out to the right-back or left-back. It only matters when they get into your half.
“We knew Ajax overplay it at times and we were focusing on that during the week. We did have chances in the game. We got a little deflection on the second goal but we’ll take whatever comes our way.
“It was a massive win and a good performance. We had to work hard for it. Without Scott Brown and Kris Commons, it showed you the strength in depth of the squad. The boys who came in were outstanding. Beram Kayal scored and had an outstanding game as well, so it shows there are players ready to step in.
“It was a very difficult game. Ajax play an awful lot of football, they don’t really play any long balls. You are chasing shadows at times. But we stayed compact and I thought we broke them down well.
“I thought our midfield boys were outstanding, as were Virgil van Dijk and Efe Ambrose at the back. They shut them down well when they had to. At the end, when we probably got a little bit tired, Ajax created one or two chances. But for the majority of the game I thought we were quite comfortable.
“As far as the group is concerned, we are just taking it game by game,” Stokes added. “Everybody probably wrote us off after losing the first two games. So this win over Ajax will do us no harm.”