Georgios Samaras will have final say on fitness

Celtic's Georgios Samaras in training. Picture: Reuters
Celtic's Georgios Samaras in training. Picture: Reuters
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CELTIC manager Neil Lennon will allow Georgios Samaras to have the final say on whether he returns to action tonight in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus.

CELTIC manager Neil Lennon will allow Georgios Samaras to have the final say on whether he returns to action tonight in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus.

Greek international Samaras has missed Celtic’s last two games with a hamstring injury sustained in the SPL match against Kilmarnock on 30 January.

Lennon believes Samaras has a better than 50-50 chance of facing the Italian champions at Parkhead tonight in Celtic’s biggest fixture since they last reached this stage of Europe’s elite tournament five years ago.

The 27-year-old forward has been a pivotal figure in Celtic’s excellent Champions League campaign so far this season, scoring five goals and consistently excelling with his general play on the biggest club stage of them all.

As Celtic bid to reach the quarter-finals of the competition for the first time since 1980, Lennon is understandably keen to have Samaras at his disposal and will make a decision in conjunction with the player at lunchtime today.

“Georgios is a big game player and they don’t come much bigger than this,” said Lennon. “We are going to give him every opportunity to make it.

“He will know himself if he is ready and I will be guided by him. He knows his own body. He hasn’t given us a definitive answer yet and we did say we wanted to leave it as long as possible. That’s what we are going to do. We will know by tomorrow lunchtime whether or not he is going to play.

“He trained again today and did a bit outside, so we will find out how he is in the morning. I don’t know if he will make it. He has maybe a 60-40 or even a 70-30 chance of playing.”

If Samaras misses out, Lennon is confident he will be able to compensate for his absence and is also cogniscant of the fact his European talisman may yet prove more valuable in the second leg of the tie in Turin next month.

“Georgios has made a massive contribution in helping us get to this stage of the competition,” added Lennon. “However, I am also aware it is a two-leg tie. So if he doesn’t make it this time, I am sure he will make the second leg in Italy.

“He is a huge player for us away from home in Europe. If we can keep the tie alive, which I am sure we can, then he could play a prominent role in the second leg.

“We have got good players to come in to the team if Georgios isn’t fit in time. We are prepared for every eventuality. I wouldn’t have to change the shape of the team, only the personnel. We worked on our shape this morning and all of the players were bubbly and in good nick.”

Honduran full-back Emilio Izaguirre and Scotland international winger James Forrest are both fit enough to rejoin the squad after their recent injuries, while Lennon will assess the condition of defender Efe Ambrose today following his return from helping Nigeria win the Africa Cup of Nations final in Johannesburg on Sunday night.

“It’s going to be difficult for Efe,” admitted Lennon. “I’m really proud of him and it’s great for the reputation of the club, to have a player winning one of the premier international tournaments.

“He was great on Sunday night and Nigeria were comfortable winners. So we will see how he is on Tuesday. He has had a 10 or 12 hour flight. He is a fantastic athlete and I know he is going to want to play. He will definitely be in the squad, put it that way.”

Defensive solidity will be a key issue for Lennon tonight. While clearly keen to secure an advantage to take into the second leg, he believes keeping a clean sheet is Celtic’s first priority.

“If you concede an away goal then obviously it would be damaging,” said Lennon. “So 0-0 wouldn’t be the worse result. But what I would like to do is to take some kind of lead to Turin.

“But Juventus are very hard to break down. They are very strong defensively and it may have to be a game of patience. I am hoping we can get plenty of the ball and we have to make the most of it. We might only get one or two chances and we have to take them when they come because, as I say, they don’t give much away.”