Versatile Hatem Abd Elhamed ready for Celtic’s Europa League test

Christopher Jullien has declared he is fit to face Rennes on Thursday. “And yeah the head knock is OK, thanks for asking,” he tweeted on Saturday night, with a clasped hands emoji signifying 
gratitude – or was it a prayer gesture?

Christopher Jullien, centre left, and Hatem Abd Elhamed applaud the Celtic fans after their win in Hamilton. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
Christopher Jullien, centre left, and Hatem Abd Elhamed applaud the Celtic fans after their win in Hamilton. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

If there are any lingering doubts – and one suspects we have not heard the last of why he was allowed back on the park after the clash of heads with Hamilton striker Marios Ogkmpoe – then Hatem Abd Elhamed has declared he is ready to step back into the middle of defence, as he did just over a fortnight ago against Rangers.

The defender has had a busy time of it since he performed with such quiet composure on his Old Firm debut, even switching from right-back to centre-half with the minimum of fuss after Nir Bitton was forced off in the second half of that 2-0 victory.

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Elhamed returned to right-back in the 1-0 win over Hamilton Accies on Saturday after featuring in every minute of Israel’s Euro 2020 qualifying double-header against North Macedonia and Slovenia – he even played a half at left-back in the latter outing.

The versatile player is proving his worth since arriving at Celtic in July. The 28-year-old is now turning his eyes to the Europa League group stage, which he reached two years ago while at Hapoel Be’er Sheva. The Israel club finished bottom of their group and Elhamed is clearly expecting better at Celtic, who as well as Rennes, will battle it out with Lazio and old foes CFR Cluj.

“We are a big club so we should be aiming to do big things in Europe,” he said. “I have played in the competition before with Be’er Sheeva and enjoyed it. There is no reason why we cannot do well in Europe and at home.”

Away wins in Stockholm against AIK, Rangers and now at the no-less-tricky venue that is Hamilton’s Fountain of Youth stadium means they are in good heart. “It does help when you have played well away from our home at Celtic Park,” he said.

“We showed against Rangers and Stockholm we can do well without a lot of our fans. That gives us a lot of confidence before we play Rennes. We have a strong squad and players with a strong belief so we can be confident. I think we can go and show this in France.”

With Bitton still out, Elhamed could be pushed into centre-half action again if Celtic decide Jullien requires some time on the sidelines following his head knock. The big defender stayed down for a concerning number of minutes following the clash with Ogkympoe but eventually resumed, with Celtic withstanding Hamilton’s spirited second-half display to secure the win after James Forrest’s early goal.

“I feel I am capable of playing anywhere in defence,” said Elhamed. “It doesn’t matter to me whether it is right-back, left-back or central defence.

“I’m confident I can make the right decisions regardless of what position I play in. I felt I did well for the national team and it has been a good start so far for Celtic.

“I am happy to switch positions,” he added. “The derby was a great experience. To experience that atmosphere was tough but I feel I adapted well and played two different positions. I want to take the confidence into Thursday.”

He admitted Ibrox was a contrast to Hamilton, where just over 5,300 watched a game on a sticky synthetic pitch. The blustery weather also didn’t help make the afternoon any more memorable. Still, Hamilton were clapped off the pitch by their fans – rightly so – after making Celtic work for a win many of them feared would be of the multi-goal variety given the pattern of play in the 
initial period.

One of the main reasons for this was the performance of 19-year-old Lewis Smith, who did as much as anyone to get Hamilton up the field in the second half. Manager Brian Rice afterwards compared him to Ryan Christie, who he coached when they were at Inverness Caledonian Thistle together.

“I think I have wee bit to go for that, but that’s really nice,” said the youngster later.

Smith relished coming up against the likes of Christie and Scott Brown. “That is ultimately where you want to be, that level of player. They are all Scotland internationals so hopefully one day I can be the same.”