The European specialist tag is beginning to attach itself to Hatem Abed Elhamed. The Celtic right-back produced both the disciplined and deft in a stirring display that helped his team defeat Lazio in the Europa League on Thursday.
It was the £1.6m summer signing from Hapoel Be-er Sheva’s first outing for the club since they were last in continental competition - the home win over Cluj and victory over the Italians helping the Scottish champions to amass a club record seven-point group halfway point total that leaves the 28-year-old believing they can “definitely” target first place in their section when they head to Rome in two weeks.
Before that they have domestic duties with today’s trip to Aberdeen, followed by hosting of St Mirren next week before Saturday’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Hibernian. Elhamed, with five outings in Europe and only three starts in the Premiership, has shared such duties with Mauritz Bauer and Jeremie Frimpong, to a certain frustration his manager Neil Lennon concedes. But his selection for the club’s most challenging assignments tells the player of a worth he places on himself. As was true of his willingness to pull off an audacious back heel on Thursday among a repertoire of footwork flourishes.
“Yeah, this is my way of playing. I have very good technique and my physical level is very high, I think,” Elhamed said. “I am also very calm with the ball and that has helped me to get confidence. When I have that confidence I think I am a good player. I think the manager trusts me. Competition is very good because it means when you get your chance to play you need to show your quality and I think this is what I have done every game since I came here. I am happy with that.”
Lennon has marvelled at the attributes that Elhamed has displayed and admits, with the player having bounced around Europe and Israel until his late 20s, they wondered if there was a “catch” to him appearing so accomplished and yet never having had the opportunity he sought on a bigger stage.
“We looked and looked, and looked and looked at him, and we were trying to find ‘what’s wrong with him’, is there a flaw?” said the Celtic manager. Every time we were looking [at right-backs] we went back to him, looked at the footage again and looked at other players and back to him again, and thought ‘we’ve got to trust our eyes here; trust our instincts’. I’ve a good relationship with the agent [Dudu Dahan], and he was waxing lyrical about him...as agents do. But he’s been true to his word so far, he’s been really excellent.
“I don’t know whether he played further up the pitch when he was younger but you can see he’s comfortable on the ball. His defensive side of the game was strong against Lazio, very strong in the first half in particular, and his quality on the ball is very good. He has a good pace about him as well. He can be delighted with his contribution. He gets a little bit frustrated not playing all the time but in the important games he’s stood up and been brilliant for us.”