‘It will be hard and we’re not taking anything for granted’ - James Forrest in Cluj warning to Celtic team-mates
In a Champions League qualifying schedule which normally offers little in the way of respite, James Forrest was grateful for an unexpected breather last week.
The Celtic winger was allowed to stay at home as the Scottish champions completed a 7-0 aggregate rout of Nomme Kalju in Tallinn, the tie having effectively been won already back in Glasgow the previous midweek.
Manager Neil Lennon’s decision to rest some key players, including Forrest, paid dividends with the freshness and zest of Celtic’s display in crushing St Johnstone 7-0 in their Premiership opener on Saturday.
But there is unlikely to be any further opportunity for Lennon to rotate his squad again during the rest of their bid to reach the Champions League group stage which continues with the first leg of their third qualifying round tie against Cluj in Romania tomorrow night.
If Celtic can overcome Dan Petrescu’s side, they will face eastern European opponents again in the final play-off round after yesterday’s draw at Uefa HQ in Nyon paired them with Czech champions Slavia Prague.
It emphasises the difficulty of Celtic’s task in the qualifiers, with the obvious danger posed by a Slavia side which only lost 5-3 on aggregate to eventual winners Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the Europa League last season, having beaten Sevilla in the last 16.
Double winners in the Czech Republic, their main threats come from top scorer Tomas Soucek, who has just signed a new contract, and summer signing Nicolae Stanciu,a highly regarded Romanian international winger.
But while the prospect of facing Slavia was a topic of conversation at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training ground, Forrest knows he and his team-mates cannot afford to avert their attention from the immediate task at hand.
“We obviously spoke about the draw but really we are just focused on Cluj,” said Forrest. “You can’t take these games for granted, these qualifiers are massive.
“Some of the teams we face have done well in the Europa League and even been in the Champions League in recent seasons. So we know they are difficult and we have to take one at a time.
“It did feel strange for me to be given a break so early in the season last week, especially in the qualifiers. But it did work out well and you maybe saw the benefits of it in the game against St Johnstone on Saturday.
“After resting a few boys, everyone was raring to go and we got a big win. It was a good decision by the manager.
“It’s a great feeling for us heading to Cluj after a result like that. We got a clean sheet as well, so that’s good for the team too. We know it’s going to be a difficult game, the Champions League games are always tough, but off the back of a 7-0 win is the best way to go into the game on Wednesday.
“We’ve been creating a lot of chances in the games we’ve played so far, and with the players we have in the team we’re not really made to sit back and defend, so we’ll be looking to score over there.”
Should Celtic get past Cluj, they would be at home in the first leg of the play-off round against Slavia Prague but Forrest is not convinced there is any great advantage either way.
“There are pros and cons to both being at home or away in the first game,” he added. “Throughout the years, you always think that whatever one you get, you just deal with it at the time. We’re away first in this one, so we want to come back to Celtic Park with a positive result and feeling good about ourselves.
“You want to come back knowing that it’s still in our hands coming to Celtic Park. It will be a hard game and we’re not taking anything for granted, we don’t want to come back with a stupid result so it’s about making sure we get the result we want.”
Forrest enjoyed the most prolific season of his career in 2018-19, scoring 17 times for Celtic and adding another five on Scotland duty. While Celtic have been scoring freely already this campaign, with playmaker Ryan Christie, pictured right, grabbing the headlines with his hat-trick on Saturday, Forrest is still waiting to get off the mark.
“I might have to shave this beard off,” he laughed, in reference to his new look. “I haven’t scored since I grew it.
“Obviously I want to get on the scoresheet again and start contributing in that way. But there are goals coming from all over the team so far, which is something the manager wanted.
“Ryan has started the season on fire and hopefully it keeps going for him because it’s great for the team when you have somebody like that. Even when he first came to the club a few years ago, Ryan was always a fit lad who could run all day.
“He’s a really good athlete but you can see his ability now as well. He went to Aberdeen on loan and then when he came back and started playing for us last year his form was incredible, not only for us but for Scotland as well.”