FRANK McAVENNIE has advised Celtic manager Ronny Deila to look no further than his current squad for the striker capable of shooting his team into the group stage of the Champions League next season.
Celtic are scouring the continent for fresh frontline talent this summer, with Bosnian international Milan Djuric the latest to be strongly linked with the Scottish champions.
But McAvennie believes Deila already possesses a player from the Balkans in the shape of Stefan Scepovic who can deliver the goods in next month’s crucial Champions League qualifying rounds.
Former Celtic striker McAvennie’s positive testimony of Scepovic will come as a surprise to many, given the underwhelming nature of the Serbian international’s first season at the club.
After signing from Sporting Gijon for £2.3 million last summer, Scepovic started just eight games for Celtic and scored only six goals in 25 appearances overall. Two of those goals came in Celtic’s final match of the campaign, a 5-0 home win over an under-strength Inverness Caledonian Thistle side, when Deila handed Scepovic just his second start of 2015. But McAvennie, whose own strike rate of one goal almost every two games for Celtic certainly met the standard demanded at the Glasgow giants, is convinced Scepovic can still emerge as a significant success for Deila’s side.
“I really think Scepovic could be the man and could save Celtic a lot of money this summer,” said McAvennie. “I like him a lot as a player. I don’t know what the issue is with him but he is still at the club and I just think it comes down to him not having had a chance to play regularly.
“Griffiths has done well but I don’t know if he is going to frighten defenders”Frank McAvennie
“I remember a similar thing with Nir Biton when he first came to Celtic – most people felt he wasn’t up to it. I went on the radio at the time and said the guy had to be given a run of six to eight games. All of a sudden he got them and has ended up as probably Celtic’s best player recently.
“So I would say to Scepovic that he is getting a run of six to eight games where he can show us what he has got. You can’t just keep taking him out of the team and bringing him back in now and then. I felt right away when I saw Scepovic that he is a good player. It was in the Europa League tie in Salzburg last September. He didn’t score that night but there was a moment when he saw the ’keeper off his line, turned and hit a shot from around the halfway line which only missed by a yard or so. Good players see that kind of thing, bad players don’t. To see a ’keeper off his line like that is a special talent. I think if you give him that run of eight games or so, he could prove to be the striker Celtic crave.”
Leigh Griffiths emerged as Celtic’s first-choice front man in the second half of the season, ending it as their top scorer with 20 goals. But he has so far failed to find the net in eight European appearances for Celtic and McAvennie is yet to be convinced of his credentials at the highest level.
“Griffiths has been magnificent over the last few months and he stepped up to the mark for Celtic during that period,” added McAvennie. “He has done well but I don’t know if he is going to frighten defenders. Celtic need a big striker and I think Scepovic could be that guy. For some reason, Ronny Deila clearly hasn’t liked what he sees in training from him. But sometimes you have to say the boy is a goalscorer and play him.
“Ronny maybe wouldn’t have liked Gary Hooper or even wee Scott McDonald in his team because they are out-and-out strikers. He likes runners, strikers who can link up with the midfielders. But sometimes at a club like Celtic, you just need a centre forward. Not a target man, just a poacher who will be there to tap them in rather than these spectacular goals Leigh Griffiths hits. I would like to see someone who will tap in from a yard when the ’keeper drops it and Scepovic could be that man.”
Celtic will discover their opponents for the second qualifying round of the Champions League when the draw is made in Nyon on Monday. They must negotiate three ties to reach the group stage, an objective which is Deila’s priority after his failed first attempt last year.
The Norwegian has set a pre-season schedule in which his squad will spend most of their time in Scotland, as opposed to the far-travelled itinerary he inherited 12 months ago and which he felt was partly to blame for the defeats by Legia Warsaw and Maribor.
“The Champions League qualifiers are huge for Ronny Deila,” said McAvennie. “When he came in last year he didn’t know the team or what he was doing. It took him a while to get it sorted.
“He’s already put his marker down this time, which I like, by telling Celtic he doesn’t want to go on these pre-season tours to Australia or America or wherever. Every year Peter Lawwell was making money for the club with those trips, which is great, but I think they’ve got their priorities right this time. Ronny wants them to be ready for the qualifiers. The money they get for these tours is nothing compared to the Champions League group stages.
“These tours take it out of the boys because they don’t get much of a holiday now. When I was playing, you’d get five weeks off and then you could take us anywhere after that. We were all overweight and had to lose some weight in the sun anyway!
“But it’s different now with every player looking after themselves. I’m delighted Ronny has said ‘no, we’re staying closer to home and we’re going to be ready for the qualifiers’.”