SCOTT Brown became the latest to mount a staunch defence of Aleksandar Tonev yesterday as Celtic officially lodged an appeal against the Bulgarian winger’s seven-match ban for racially abusing Aberdeen’s Shay Logan during a Premiership match in September.
The appeal means Tonev is eligible to play when the sides meet again on Sunday at Pittodrie, but Celtic manager Ronny Deila was circumspect over whether he would throw the player into a such a potentially volatile fixture.
Brown, though, is adamant that the player, who received the full backing of the Bulgarian FA on Tuesday, is innocent.
Speaking in Romania ahead of his side’s Europa League tie against Astra, the Celtic captain said: “We’ll all stick by him. We know he didn’t say it. That’s the main thing”.
Brown was asked if the Aston Villa attacker’s presence within a cosmopolitan dressing room meant explaining his part in the incident with Logan to team-mates. “I don’t think he needs to explain himself,” the Scotland midfielder said. “We all believed him when he first said that he didn’t do it. We stand by him because we know he wouldn’t come in and lie. He talks to everyone in that changing room.”
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Deila also reiterated that Tonev retained his backing, but the Norwegian would not divulge whether he would be considered for selection against Astra or Aberdeen.
Last weekend the Celtic manager stated the player had been left out of the squad selected for the win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle because the decision of the judicial panel had left the 24-year-old “depressed”.
“We will see,” Deila said about Tonev featuring in Romania. “I will talk with him and we will see what we do with the squad. He’s a good player but we need him 100 per cent ready. You can’t play on 70 to 80 per cent. I think it is easier to play in Europe than play in Scotland right now because of what is happening and also the next game is Aberdeen.
“I understand also it is a tough situation for him, and also the club. We have put in the appeal and hopefully we get that right. As I’ve said many times, it is a very hard penalty when it is word against word, and we believe the player.” He added it was “too early to say” whether Tonev would be considered for the trip to Pittodrie.
Deila’s more immediate concern is reconfiguring his attacking options for a Group D Europa League tie that could provide Celtic with a passport to the last 32 of the competition. Victory against Astra, coupled with a Salzburg victory over Dinamo Zagreb, would ensure progression to the knockout stage but Celtic will attempt to do their bit without Anthony Stokes as well as the ineligible, and in-form, John Guidetti.
The Irish forward was sent home from Glasgow Airport by the club’s doctor after complaining of feeling unwell when he turned up yesterday morning to check in for the flight to Bucharest. Deila accepted Stokes would be missed after he has made the wide-left attacking role his own but that there were “other players who could do a good job”.The Celtic manager said: “He had a sore throat and a fever “He didn’t feel well at all and travelling on a plane for three and a half hours was not the right thing.
“If we had taken him with us there was a possibility other players could get it as well. We didn’t want to take any chances with that.”
Guidetti’s unavailability, and the illness that has floored Stokes, is likely to mean that Stefan Scepovic will be looking to Mubarak Wakaso and Callum McGregor to supply him from the flanks.
The Serbian has been left in the shade, and on the bench, because of the impact made by on-loan Guidetti. The fillip the £2.3 million summer signing from Sporting Gijon desperately required seemed to arrive with a first Celtic goal that paved the way for the 2-1 home victory over Astra a fortnight ago – a feeling strengthened when he followed this up with a starting place and goal in a win over Kilmarnock days later.
But Scepovic has been given little game-time in the three wins Celtic have recorded since then, though Deila described the game in Giurgiu as a “big chance for him to show the quality he has and continue scoring as he did in the last game”.
“I talk to him all the time,” the Celtic manager said. “He has things he has to work on to get improvement of course. But there is also the fact that as well as the 11 players you start with you also need players on the bench you can turn a match around with.”
Meanwhile, Astra coach Oleg Protasov has said the encounter with Celtic must not be considered all or nothing for the still-pointless bottom side in Group D, but a “celebration”. Despite a first win in six games at the weekend, there have been few such delights at a club where the internal divisions caused by the strong-arm ownership of Ioan Niculae were laid bare with this week’s resignation of president Dinu Gheorghe.
However, Protasov, only a month into the job as the club’s 18th coach in five years, said: “I spoke to the players in the last days, because it is a celebration to play Glasgow Celtic. I think they understand, because they are playing one of the most important teams in Europe.”
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