'Bad knee, overweight, but would love to play' - Celtic will expose their fringe men

If it were not for a gammy knee, a few extra pounds around his midriff and the fact that, at 56, he is comfortably two decades older than Joe Hart, his most experienced player, then Ange Postecoglou would expect to come into consideration for Thursday night’s Europa League clash with in-form Real Betis.

Fringe players like Liam Scales could get game-time for Celtic against Real Betis.
Fringe players like Liam Scales could get game-time for Celtic against Real Betis.

Instead, he is the one charged with assessing the options at his disposal ahead of a game that kicks off an intense festive schedule.

Although Celtic are bedded in third place in Group G, between Real Betis and bottom club Ferencvaros, and cannot move up or down regardless of the outcome on Thursday, Postecoglou scoffed at any suggestion the final group game is meaningless.

Celtic have already booked a place in the Conference League knockout stage next year. There will of course be some regret that this week’s European appointment does not have the potential to be a classic, all-or-nothing night under the lights, like so many in the past.

Ismaila Soro's Celtic minutes have been limited.

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The concession of a late goal to Bayer Leverkusen last month, meaning Celtic fell to defeat having led 2-1 with eight minutes left, extinguished hopes Postecoglou’s side could keep their Europa League hopes alive.

But the Australian will not hear of the game being dismissed as meaningless. As much as anything, it is a chance for Celtic to test themselves against top-class European opposition.

There’s no question that Real Betis deserve that billing. Manuel Pellegrini's side have won their last five games, including Saturday’s La Liga clash with Barcelona in the Nou Camp. Celtic are in good form too and brushed Dundee United aside the following day at Tannadice thanks to goals from Tom Rogic, David Turnbull and Liam Scales.

Postecoglou will seek to freshen up his side ahead of Thursday. Scales, a sub on Sunday, could be handed a start, as could James McCarthy, another who saw action from the bench at Tannadice.

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Young full-back Adam Montgomery is pushing for a start.

Then there is Ismaila Soro, a bit-part player to date under Postecoglou. The manager is alert to the fact Celtic are preparing to play eight games in 24 days, including next Sunday’s Premier Sports Cup final v Hibs and the Old Firm New Year encounter on January 2.

His squad is set to be tested to the maximum hence why he needs everyone up to speed and ready to answer the call.

The Real Betis encounter is set to prove essential and Posticoglou expects no one to turn up their nose at the chance to play in such a game against a team of genuine quality.

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“I’ve got one bad knee and I’m overweight – but I’d love to play!” he said. “I don’t think anyone wouldn’t want that opportunity. European nights are always special for this club.

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou would love to play against Betis.

“For me as manager, it’s great as we’ll get meaningful minutes because, as we saw at the weekend, they are a top side. You need to be exposed to that kind of football to get them ready for the challenges ahead.”

He cited the example of Scales, the former Shamrock Rovers defender who scored his first goal for Celtic on Sunday after replacing Greg Taylor with 15 minutes left.

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“Any player, they want to start off their Celtic career as positively as possible," he said. "The dream is scoring, so it’s great for him. He’s worked hard in training every day, waiting for his opportunity.

“Like with all these guys, I can't guarantee when it will come, but if it does, they’ve got to be ready. Scalesy is doing everything right in training to make sure he’s ready.”

The trouble for Scales is that Taylor, who made his comeback from injury against United, also needs game-time, and is in line to start again on Thursday. Adam Montgomery is another who comes into the equation on this side of the defence. The versatile Scales could occupy one of the centre-half positions.

“No games are ever a dead rubber,” said Postecoglou. “Every game is an opportunity to do something special, do something that is memorable.

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“I don’t see it as a dead rubber. It’s not about resting guys. I need to give some game time to players, that’s for sure.

“As we saw with the last game, whether it’s injuries or being able to rotate, I need players who have game time under their belts. Thursday is a great opportunity for some of the guys who haven’t played much recently to get 90 minutes in.

“We’ve still got eight games between now and the break – including the cup final – so we want everyone up and running.”

Postecoglou was delighted to be able to give Mikey Johnston all 90 minutes against United. He has already challenged the winger to make the most of the opportunity following Jota’s unfortunate hamstring injury sustained against Hearts last week. The Portuguese winger has now been ruled out for a number of weeks.

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Johnston has been in and out of the side this season, though nearly all his appearances have been as a substitute.

The United victory was only his second start under Postecoglou, who was complimentary. The manager also, somewhat pointedly, urged him to continue putting in the graft.

“He was good on Sunday,” said Postecoglou. “It was good for him to get 90 minutes and start working on the things we have been talking to him about.

“Again, with attacking players, they usually measure themselves with goals and assists – all the flashy stuff.

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“For me, it’s the other stuff that is important, and that’s what Mikey did the other day.

“He has got talent. He’ll score goals and create assists. It’s about making sure he understands you need to invest to do that.

“He’s seen Kyogo (Furuhashi), Jota, Liel (Abada) and James Forrest. They are all getting the rewards, but they have to put the hard work in. Mikey did that on Sunday.”

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