NEIL LENNON has strongly hinted he will hand teenager Tony Watt a daunting Champions League group stage debut tonight as he looks for a hero to emerge and help his injury-struck Celtic side upset the odds against Barcelona.
The Celtic manager has seen his plans for the Parkhead showdown with the peerless Catalan side severely disrupted by a series of knocks sustained by key personnel.
Left-back Emilio Izaguirre has been ruled out for up to six weeks after pulling a hamstring in Sunday’s 2-2 SPL draw with Dundee United at Tannadice, while central defender Thomas Rogne will be missing for a fortnight after damaging a calf muscle in the same match.
But it is in the attacking areas where Lennon is most concerned, with winger James Forrest definitely unavailable and leading striker Gary Hooper almost certain to miss out with a hamstring problem.
While Lennon is hopeful Georgios Samaras will return in the wide left role tonight after limping out of Celtic’s 2-1 defeat by Barcelona in the Nou Camp two weeks ago, he faces a straight choice between 18-year-old Watt and on-loan Venezuelan international Nicolas “Miku” Fedor to replace Hooper as the central striker.
Although Watt has yet to start a European tie for Celtic, his only two appearances so far coming as a substitute in both legs of the Play-off round success against Helsingborgs this season, Lennon does not believe the teenager’s inexperience should count against him.
Lennon recalled the starring roles which goalkeeper David Marshall and defender John Kennedy, then 19 and 20 respectively, played in Celtic’s Uefa Cup triumph against Barcelona in 2004 as he assessed his options tonight. “I’d have no hesitation about playing Tony,” said Lennon. “The kid’s fearless and he’s playing very well at the minute and scoring goals. It’s a big ask against Barcelona, but sometimes with that lack of fear, you can go and be a hero on the night. He’s definitely in our thinking, as is Miku.
“Gordon Strachan said to me recently that going into a game like this, you just never know who’ll be a hero for you. Someone can come out of the crowd and play beyond all expectation. It could be somebody you don’t expect or somebody you do expect. That can happen. It happened with David Marshall and John Kennedy a few years ago against Barca.”
Watt has scored four goals for Celtic this season, having started just six games so far, but was self-deprecating about his chances of facing Barcelona when he spoke immediately after Sunday’s game at Tannadice. Despite scoring one of Celtic’s goals and setting up the other, Watt was highly critical of his overall display.
“He’s a very humble boy,” observed Lennon, “but he wasn’t rotten on Sunday, whatever he says. He’s learning as he goes along. We’re delighted with him, more than delighted, actually. He’s been a huge bonus for us in the last two games.
“He played very well in the second half on Sunday and he has different attributes that he brings to the game. He can run channels, he can drive at people, he can score really good individual goals like he did at the weekend. He got a header at St Mirren a few weeks ago and he scores different kinds of goals.
“There’s a rawness about him that we’ll be able to polish off as the years go on but as long as he keeps himself grounded, which he’s trying to do, he’s in a good place for us. I don’t think it comes across in his personality, but when he goes out on the pitch his body language has a wee bit of gallusness about him, which is great. I wouldn’t discourage that at all.”
Lennon’s game plan tonight, as Celtic try to solidify their bid to reach the last 16 of the Champions League which currently sees them in second place in Group G, will depend significantly on Samaras’ fitness.
The Greek international has been Celtic’s most effective and influential player in Europe so far this season and Lennon will anxiously await the outcome of a fitness test the player will undergo this morning.
“Sami is touch and go and we’ll give him another day,” said Lennon. “He did some light training today and is a lot better than he was yesterday, so we’re hoping he will be good to go after another 24 hours.
“But we have to have a Plan A and a Plan B, one with and one without him. Even if he starts, there’s a possibility he might not finish the game, so we have to be flexible in our thinking about him.
“He knows his own body and I think he is pretty confident he will make it. But it depends on the reaction he gets overnight from today’s exertions. We’ve gone pretty easy on him and given him as much chance as possible. Regardless of our other injuries, we will need him.”