Lennon cites Forster role as crucial to Celtic success

THE value of Fraser Forster’s impeccable display for Celtic in Sweden on Tuesday night will be measured in millions of pounds if his team complete their progress to the group stage of the Champions League next week.

But, as far as Neil Lennon is concerned, having a goalkeeper capable of the performance level delivered by Forster in the 2-0 Play-off round, first leg win against Helsingborgs is simply priceless.

A series of fine saves from the 24-year-old ensured Celtic weathered an attacking storm for long spells in the Olympia Stadium before leaving with a result which makes them the hottest of favourites to book a money-spinning place in next Thursday’s group stage draw in Monte Carlo.

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It was Forster’s 53rd clean sheet in 96 appearances for Celtic, his current form vindicating Lennon’s dogged determination to sign him on a permanent deal from Newcastle during the summer after two seasons on loan.

Such is Lennon’s faith in 
Forster’s ability, he is happy to compare him with the most exalted of his profession and predicts that he will go on to prove himself as one of Britain’s top goalkeepers.

“I’ve always thought, from my own experience and from watching all the other teams play away from home in Europe, you do need your goalkeeper to play well,” reflected Lennon as Celtic returned from Sweden yesterday. “Whether it is Celtic, Manchester United, Juventus – any team. All good goalkeepers win matches for you. Allan McGregor did it for Rangers over the years, Andy Goram did it before that. Artur Boruc did it for us when I played for Celtic. Peter Schmeichel and Gigi 
Buffon also did it. Good goalkeepers are worth their weight in gold at times.

“I thought Fraser was fantastic on Tuesday night and he made big saves at big moments. He was the catalyst for the result. He was perfect in everything he did. We might need another decent performance out of him in the home game. I’m sure Helsingborgs will try and fly out of the blocks.

“But Fraser was a main reason in our transfer policy, getting him in this year, because we felt he would be very important going into this campaign. The way he has been the last 18 months, at the top of his game, he’s only getting better. He’s still only 24 and he has all the attributes to be one of the best goalkeepers in the land. We’ve had him for over two years now and have bedded him down for another three at least. We feel he is a great signing for us.”

There has been much debate over whether Forster will be able to realise his ambition of playing for England while earning his living in Scottish football. Lennon admitted he feared that could work against Celtic when they were trying to convince the player to commit himself to the club during the summer.

“There was always that worry that he might not come to us on a permanent deal because of that,” added Lennon. “When John Ruddy pulled out of the England squad for the European Championship finals, Fraser didn’t even get a call.

“That was obviously a concern, because talks were ongoing at that time. But the fact we persuaded him to come says that he’s pretty happy at Celtic and feeling good about himself at the minute.

“I don’t think he did himself any harm on Tuesday night as far as England recognition is concerned. The game was shown to a nationwide ITV audience, so his performance was seen down south. It’s not for me to pick him for England. But all he can do is keep performing like that and, sooner or later, the door will swing open.”

Lennon maintained his cautionary approach to Celtic’s prospects of group stage qualification despite the handy lead they will take into next Wednesday’s second leg at Parkhead. He was dismissive of Helsingborgs coach Age Hareide’s assertion that the pressure is still firmly on Celtic.

“He was saying all the pressure was on us going into the game anyway,” shrugged Lennon. “That may be so, but I think our players have learned to handle the pressure a lot, lot better than in the past. In most of our domestic games, we are more or less heavy favourites to win, so they are used to it now.

“I’m not going to get into 
a war of words with him 
(Hareide). I’ll just leave it at that until next week. We will be at home next week, so the onus is maybe on us to take the game to them.

“That’s what we will try and do. We’ve got a good cushion going into the game. That’s obviously important and the clean sheet was priceless as well.

“Like I said immediately after the game on Tuesday, records are there to be changed and that’s the case with our away record. That’s four unbeaten away from home now – two draws and two wins – so we are starting to turn the corner a wee bit in that respect.”