Celtic will not rush Moussa Dembele’s return to action next week despite their Champions League hopes hanging in the balance.
The French striker, pictured inset, who has scored 50 goals in 90 appearances for Brendan Rodgers’ side, is back in training after being sidelined since mid-July when he limped out of the second leg of their first qualifying round tie against Alashkert with a hamstring injury.
The 22-year-old’s knack of rising to the big occasion could be priceless for Celtic in Greece next Tuesday when they face AEK Athens in the second leg of a third qualifying round tie now weighted against them after the 1-1 draw between the teams in Glasgow on Wednesday.
But while manager Rodgers is keen to get Dembele involved as soon as possible, he is wary of the player suffering any adverse reaction.
“You always have to think of the longer term,” said Rodgers. “If it was the last game of the season or a cup final then you can maybe look at it, but at this stage of the season, especially off the back of that type of injury, the last thing you want to do is put him out for another six weeks.
“That wouldn’t make sense, everything has to be in balance in terms of risk. We will see how it goes. The medical guys have always felt it was going to be a push. We also have to see how Moussa is feeling himself. You can’t put a timeline on these sort of things.
“He is working very hard out on the training field. We will see how he goes. You always have to weigh up the risk.”
Regardless of the personnel at his disposal, Rodgers remains highly confident of Celtic’s prospects of overcoming the Greek champions and reaching the play-off round. He points to some of his team’s previous away performances under his guidance in Europe as justification for his optimism.
“No-one gave us a chance when we went to Anderlecht in the Champions League last season and got a good result [winning 3-0],” he said. “Everyone thought the same after the 0-0 at home to Rosenborg last year and we went out there and got a good result [1-0] and performance.
“We also played very well out in Moenchengladbach in the Champions League group stage a couple of years ago and got a good result [1-1].
“So while it will always be a challenge at this level of competition, I’ve every faith in the players to go to Athens and get the result we want.
“My reflections on the first leg are that when you get over the disappointment in relation to the result, we felt we were the better team.
“They are a good side, that’s why they are entering at this stage of the competition. If we’d gone in 1-0 at half-time, everyone would have been happy at how we played.
“My only disappointment was the goal we conceded right on half-time and on another day, we take the chances in the second half. But we are going out there next week knowing we still have a really good chance.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, has explained the reasoning behind Emilio Izaguirre’s return to Celtic just a year after he left for Saudi Arabia. The 32-year-old left-back is expected to sign a one-year contract today and will provide back-up for Kieran Tierney. “It gives us that cover in a position where Kieran is clearly our number one full-back,” he said. “We are bringing in someone who fully understands that. He also understands the club and the pressures of playing for Celtic.
“Emilio is a role model as a professional. To have him back also allows young Calvin Miller to go out on loan. He has been cover for Kieran but needs regular games in his legs. So it is multi-purpose really. But it’s great for Emilio to come into the squad again.”
Celtic are also close to completing a two-year loan deal for 19-year-old Australian winger Daniel Arzani following his move from Melbourne City to Manchester City.
“He is an exciting player, but we have to see how it goes,” said Rodgers. “He is a young talent who has come here to hopefully become a player over the next two years.
“He is only starting out in his career so the club have a close link with Manchester City and he is a talent over the next two years. He is a nice young guy. Let’s see how he works.”