Celtic's James Forrest targets another crucial European goal

James Forrest is fast approaching 250 appearances for Celtic, he has won 11 major honours with his only senior club and has also been capped 17 times by Scotland.

James Forrest has already scored a crucial goal in the Champions League qualifiers this season, in the narrow win at Rosenborg. Craig Williamson/SNS

It is, by any standards, an impressive roll call of achievements but the 26-year-old is well aware that, if any supporter or team-mate was asked to nominate the highlight of his professional career, there would be a unanimous vote for a goal he scored at Parkhead on 28 August, 2013.

Context is king in this regard. Celtic had gone into the second leg of their Champions League play-off against Shakhter Karagandy as underdogs, having lost 2-0 in Kazakhstan eight days earlier (oddly enough, that match had been played at the Astana Arena, the home ground of FC Astana, whom Celtic entertain in the first leg of this year’s shoot-out tomorrow evening).

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On an evening when it was impossible to tell whether the tension from the stands was transmitting itself to the pitch or the other way round. The visitors played their part, defending obdurately and looking threatening on the break.

They looked like reaching the sanctuary of the dressing room with their two-goal cushion until, on the stroke of half-time, Kris Commons pulled one back for Neil 
Lennon’s side.

Georgios Samaras drew 
Celtic level shortly after the restart but after that the tie ebbed and flowed, with both teams hitting the woodwork and Adam Matthews clearing a Karagandy effort off the line.

Then, in stoppage time, Anthony Stokes slalomed through the Kazakh defence and pulled the ball back for Forrest. The winger was tiring and would have been substituted if an additional 30 minutes had been required but he rose to the occasion, driving home emphatically to send the 58,000 crowd into raptures.

Lennon, punching the air, sprinted down the touchline to throw himself on top of the rest of his squad, who had leapt upon Forrest behind the goal.

“It’s hard to explain what was going through my mind,” he claimed. “Moments like that are why you play football; it was massive and it’s hard to put into words what it felt like but it was an unbelievably great feeling when the ball hits the back of the net to put us through.

“We’d lost the first leg 2-0 so to come back and win the home leg 3-0 and get through made that night one of the best.

“I didn’t see the manager running up the touchline at the time because there was a massive pile-up but I saw later on that he had run 50 yards.

“You probably wouldn’t imagine the current gaffer would do that but you never know because sometimes you can’t control your emotions in these moments.

“It was amazing because the crowd was buzzing and, hopefully, we will have more of that. My timing could hardly have been better as it was right at the end although I think they still had a chance after that which, if they’d scored with it, would have seen us go out.

“It was so important that we made it. Champions League for this club is massive and we need to get there again.”

The financial rewards for clearing the hurdle represented by FC Astana have been well documented, with former club captain Tom Boyd arguing that, should Celtic manage to collect the £30 million (which will be the minimum they will receive) from Uefa for reaching the group phase then that windfall will guarantee that Celtic, who have won six successive league titles, cannot be prevented from setting a new Scottish record of ten in a row.

Forrest understands the financial significance of qualification but also appreciates the opportunity to play on the biggest stage and test himself against the best possible opposition. The footballing benefits can often be forgotten when such huge sums are at stake but the 26-year-old points out that the players also receive a lift by coming up against the Barcelonas and Benficas.

Astana were beaten 3-2 on aggregate last season (a 2-1 win in Glasgow following a creditable 1-1 draw away from home) and Forrest hopes that he 
and his team-mates can maintain their 100 per cent success rate against clubs from that country.

“There’s something about teams from Kazakhstan and last-minute goals,” he said. “Moussa Dembele scored with a late penalty last year against Astana.

“We know it’s going to be difficult again with the travelling for the second leg but we coped with it last time. Hopefully, we’ll take care of them when it comes along.”

While claiming a place at the top table at Astana’s expense remains the priority for the Scottish champions, they at least know that they are now guaranteed Europa League football until Christmas at least, whatever the outcome of the play-off.

That would not have been the case had they failed to see off Rosenborg in the previous play-off round and, with injuries to strikers Leigh Griffiths and Dembele leaving them short of options up front, Forrest was deployed through the middle as the Norwegians were unfortunate not to do better than draw 0-0 at Parkhead.

With 21 minutes remaining in the Lerkandel Stadion the tie was still goalless but Forrest recovered from taking a poor first touch to drive the ball into the roof of the net from an acute angle. It was enough to deflate the hosts.

“I think the goal in Trondheim was just as big because, being a little bit older now, I think you appreciate things more,” he claimed. “It certainly felt every bit as good and as important to score that goal.

“You look at the situation that we could have been out [of Europe completely] if we hadn’t got through but we didn’t even think about that. Of course, had we lost that then we wouldn’t even have had the Europa League so it was a big relief but our priority is to get to the Champions League group phase.

“We know how important it is – not just financially – and it would give us so much to look forward to the next four months.

“The games we played last year against top teams are the games you want to play in. The atmosphere at Celtic Park on those nights is amazing and the backing we get away from home is terrific, too.

“You just want to play in the Champions League and, hopefully, we will get there.”