Fitness doubt over James Forrest ahead of Old Firm clash

JAMES FORREST has emerged as a doubtful starter for Celtic in tomorrow night’s Old Firm game as the young winger battles to overcome a combination of fatigue and hamstring problems.

One of the most influential performers in Celtic’s run of eight successive SPL victories, which leaves them poised to leapfrog Rangers at the top of the table if they can defeat their great rivals, Forrest limped out of Saturday’s 2-1 win over Kilmarnock five minutes into the second half. The 20-year-old Scotland international has been in eye-catching form for Neil Lennon’s team this season, scoring seven goals and contributing several assists as his reputation grows. But Forrest appeared off colour at the weekend and manager Lennon will closely assess his condition today.

“James was a bit flat but that’s understandable,” said Lennon. “We’ll have to see how he is after he gets some rest. But, if we lose him, we have plenty of good players to come in. We looked strong in midfield in the second half against Kilmarnock with Joe Ledley, Ki Sung Yueng and Scott Brown. But we want James fit for this game.”

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Lennon, meanwhile, revealed that current second choice goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska has been offered a new contract by Celtic. The Polish international’s current deal expires at the end of the season.

“He’s going to let us know over the next couple of days what he wants to do,” said Lennon.

Having dropped eight points in their last six SPL fixtures, Rangers will go into the Celtic Park collision as the underdogs as far as the bookmakers are concerned.

Priced as long as 100-30 to win the match, the reigning Scottish champions will need to draw on all of the resilience which has served them so well in recent seasons if they are to prevent Lennon’s even money favourites maintaining their current impressive momentum and racking up a ninth successive league victory.

Rangers’ 2-1 defeat at St Mirren on Saturday, which they finished with nine men after the dismissals of Lee McCulloch and Dorin Goian, saw a one-time 15-point lead at the top of the table cut to just one.

But defender Carlos Bocanegra insists the Ibrox men must be immune to the negativity surrounding their present form as they prepare for a match he does not regard as pivotal to the outcome of the title race.

“We can’t let all the hype get into our heads before the match because all the emotions will be there on game day,” said Bocanegra. “It is fun for the media and the fans to build up because it’s an exciting game, but it’s up to us to prepare well mentally rather than get caught up in that.

“I’m certainly not going to play the fixture down, but we must focus the way we would for any other game.

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“There is still a long way to go this season and we’re only around the halfway point at the moment. While this is a big game, there are a lot more points to be won and lost after this game and what happens this week will decide nothing.”

The 32-year-old USA international captain savoured his first taste of Old Firm action in September when Rangers defeated Celtic 4-2 at Ibrox to establish their early season ascendancy at the SPL summit.

“Every Old Firm game is huge and I’m looking forward to testing ourselves against our biggest rivals,” added Bocanegra. “Any time you have a chance to get a result against them, it’s a big opportunity and there was a lot of energy around the club after we won the last derby in September. Everyone at Rangers was happy and they all had a little pep in their step, so we want to experience that sort of thing again.”

It remains to be seen who partners Bocanegra in central defence tomorrow as a replacement for the suspended Goian. Veteran club captain David Weir is in contention, while manager Ally McCoist can also consider on-loan Arsenal player Kyle Bartley and Kirk Broadfoot for the role.