CELTIC manager backs his winger to fire the Hoops to the Champions League, writes Ewing Grahame
Celtic manager Ronny Deila appeared to be lost in the woods last summer when his new club was ejected from the Champions League qualifying rounds twice in a matter of weeks.
Now, as the Premiership title holders prepare to face Icelandic team Stjarnan in the first leg of their second qualifying round at Parkhead on Wednesday, he believes that his side will benefit from Forrest fire.
Scotland winger James Forrest has not had his problems to seek in recent campaigns. The 24-year-old has spent more time in the treatment room than the dressing room in the last three seasons. He started just 32 league games during that period after suffering groin, knee, calf, hip and hamstring problems, not to mention being hospitalised for a week with a virus which kept him out of the Champions League group stage match against AC Milan in September, 2013.
Deila admits there were times last year where he winced each time Forrest gained possession, fearing that he was one challenge away from breaking down yet again.
The Norwegian is confident, however, that those worries are a thing of the past. Forrest’s sole contribution to the traumatic defeats by Legia Warsaw and NK Maribor came in a 20-minute cameo from the bench as Celtic lost 2-0 to the Poles at Murrayfield.
Reinstated due to a clerical error on Legia’s behalf, Celtic were forced to take on Maribor without his searing pace and game-changing close control and his absence was keenly felt. Stjarnan, Deila believes, will not be so fortunate.
“James can be very important,” he said. “He has something special on the ball. He can get past people and create chances. He looks stronger.
“We have to be patient but we hope that he will be at a high level for these qualifying rounds. Last season he was at 40 per cent and now he is on 60-70 per cent. If we get him up to 100 per cent then everybody knows what his potential is.
“Now, though, he is training every day, playing games and what he needs is the same as Mikael Lustig and Charlie Mulgrew - more matches to get into top shape.
“Does he trust his body now? He looks very confident and I’m not afraid when he is on the pitch now. In my first six months I would watch him play through my fingers!
“I was hoping nothing would go wrong but you knew it would happen because he wasn’t in a good shape, his whole core and everything was not right then, but we have got that right now.”
Celtic endured six defeats in Continental competitions last season but those early eliminations did much to sow seeds of doubt about Deila’s suitability for the job. Was it a case of trying to do too much too soon or was that course of action almost unavoidable?
“That’s hard to say,” he replied. “Maybe I wish I had done things differently but, at the time, there were a lot of new things to deal with.
“In any case, you can’t be something you are not. I need to do the things I believe in and the things I know and I can say that we will continue with the same things we did before.
“From the first day I have tried to be myself. Is it easier to be me now? Of course. That’s obviousWhen you come to a new country it’s a different culture, a new language and new players. This is also a new level because Celtic is a bigger club.
“For the players, too, it was a change because they’d had the same coach [Neil Lennon] for four years until I came. So there was a transition but we are in a better place now than we were one year ago.
“[Being knocked out by Maribor] doesn’t annoy me at all but I hate the feeling I had in my body. That is a feeling that I fear and that fear drives me on. I hate losing, that’s in my blood.
“However, when I think back, we just weren’t good enough so I’m not irritated by that. Everyone here does everything they can every day to prepare for these games.
“We believe that we can do it but, if we don’t, it’s because we are not good enough. That’s how it is but I now really believe that we are good enough.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, following his baptism of fire, Deila refuses to take Stjarnan lightly.
“They are a hard-working team and one with nothing to lose,” he said. “They just have to go out there and make it hard for us and hope for a goal in a counter-attack or set play, something that can bring them into the game.
“It’s quite the same as teams we meet in the Scottish league – people that want to break us down, stay back and just be compact and wait for a chance.”