Mohamed Elyounoussi: Ready to make his mark at Celtic second time around

Winger looks to make up for lost time in new loan spell

Winger Mohamed Elyounoussi scores to make it 2-0 against Ross County.
Winger Mohamed Elyounoussi scores to make it 2-0 against Ross County.

There is a sense from Mohamed Elyounoussi that he feels he has only been half the player he can be for Celtic. The Norwegian winger certainly lost almost half a season of his first period on loan from Southampton to injury; a foot stress fracture the principal reason his appearances were restricted to 16 starts and four substitute appearances.

The 25-year-old agreed to another year farmed out to the Scottish champions because he was determined to show more of himself – and certainly has pushed himself through the club’s pre-season programme as if intent on making up for lost time.

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His strike in Sunday’s 2-0 friendly win over Ross County at a deserted Celtic Park brought him a second goal in club’s build-up for a potentially epoch-making 10-in-a-row campaign. Elyounoussi’s showings in the past few weeks suggest that, in the next 10 months, he is eminently capable of improving on the seven goals and six assists he contributed in a seriously abridged 2019-20 campaign.

The attacker earned a £13m move to the English Premier League from Basel on the back of posting career-best figures of 13 goals and 17 assists in 2017/18. Those sort of numbers are clearly what Elyounoussi will be pitching for this season. Not that he would ever say so. When it comes to such matters, and many others, he chooses to be circumspect. That extends to a “no-comment” response to his thoughts on Celtic’s attempts to secure a season loan deal for his former Basel team-mate and now fringe West Ham striker Albian Ajeti.

“I never talk about my targets at all but, of course, I have them,” he said. “I want to score as many goals as I possibly can for Celtic. On top of that, I want to provide as many assists as I can. That is my role in the team and at the start of every season I do make some targets.

“You will never find me talking about them in public though. I will always keep my targets a secret.”

It seems certain that Elyounoussi will have had a chat with his manager Neil Lennon – whose presence at Celtic the player has said proved a major factor in his decision to return to Scotland – about targets that will be expected of him.

In those discussions, Lennon would surely have used James Forrest as the benchmark for the sort of returns sought from the wide man. Especially when it appears from the pre-season encounters that Elyounoussi could be deployed in a more advanced role, almost as a second striker behind Odsonne Edouard. Forrest, even in tending to come off the flank, contributed 16 goals and 22 assists from 47 appearances. The Southampton loanee gives the impression that Lennon will be after similar totals from him, starting with the Premiership curtain-raiser at home to Hamilton Accies on Sunday.

“At Celtic, the manager wants me to get a lot of goals and assists,” Elyounoussi acknowledged. “The good thing is that I know when I step on to the pitch that I will probably get at least one chance in every game.

“It’s all about me being clinical when I get into the position to score. Against Ross County [last Sunday] I scored with my first chance of the game. It was a great cross from Jeremie [Frimpong] and I was happy.

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“I am feeling sharp and I think all the boys are looking good. We now need to train hard for the next few days and get ready for Sunday. There is still more to come.

“We could have scored even more against County [than the two goals] but we will sharpen in front of goal as the games go on. I am happy with the way things are going. We are looking strong defensively and it was good to get a clean sheet.”

Personal physical strength will be crucial for Elyounoussi. At times last term he appeared delicate for the bruising rigours of the Scottish game. However, a full pre-season at Lennoxtown denied him last year because he did not arrive until two days before the window closed, means he will go into this campaign in more robust shape. And more at one with his role, his burgeoning relationship down the left with Greg Taylor a feature of the club’s pre-season programme.

“It was difficult last season but I feel fit now. I had a chance to work really hard during the break,” he said. “I felt fresh when I came back to training and I can see the boys have done the same.

“We worked hard to keep in good condition and, of course, it helps when I have more time to prepare with the team. The connection gets better all the time and we have been trying to build that up on the left side with Greg. You can see it gets better all the time and with more games, hopefully we will be even stronger as the season goes on. It’s always the same in football, the more time you spend working together as a team the better you get.”

The attraction of another season at Celtic was not simply to be part of a drive to make history. By the time Elyounoussi pitched up at the club last season, Lennon’s side had failed in their bid to make it through the Champions League qualifiers. They will seek to avoid that fate in the coming weeks, the draw for the first round to be played on 18/19 August rolling around a week 
on Sunday 
(9 August).

“The Champions League is really big for me. It is no secret that everyone wants to get back there this season,” he said, Celtic having last competed in the competition’s group stages in 2017.

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“This stadium, the crowd and these players...it’s what this club deserves. There are four rounds of qualifiers to go through but hopefully we can reach our goal of getting to the group stages.”

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