NOTHING has pleased Celtic manager Ronny Deila more this season than the return to full fitness of James Forrest.
A groin injury and persistent knee problems meant that the Scotland winger started just 53 games in the three seasons prior to this one.
Now, though, the 24-year-old appears to be in peak condition and Deila believes he can be a game-changer at home and abroad, following his fine display against Malmö in midweek.
“I was so happy and pleased with him,” he said. “We saw his potential and I told him in November that the Champions League qualification this year was when he was hopefully going to be the difference for us because he has something special.
“But I knew he had a long, long way to go to come back after all his injuries. I told him that he needed to be patient but now you can see more and more with his consistency and the work rate he had on Wednesday night – I am in love with the guy when I see him like that.
“If he can get up to that level and do even better then we have a top, top international player in our squad.
“Of course he hasn’t been training and hasn’t played, so it’s very hard to get him in. Now he is training more and playing games, it is easier to give him feedback. He is a humble guy, he really wants to learn and now he trusts his body much more.
“It was just fantastic to watch him on Wednesday. The work ethic he had was great. Offensively, we know he can create and unbalance the other team every time he gets the ball.
“You can understand people saying they have heard a lot about James Forrest and not seen it so much but how can a player perform when he is in and out all the time?
“He doesn’t get any consistency. Before this year he was out for 560 days. That’s two years out of four – out and in.
“Every time he is ready he is pushed back in because he is so important for the team. But now we have protected him, built him up, and now he is starting to play more regularly.”
Forrest needs game time more than most and, consequently, may not be rested against Dundee United at noon today, even though his pace could be a crucial part of Celtic’s armoury against Malmö on Tuesday.
Gary Mackay-Steven, who was on the bench in midweek, may also start against his former club while new signing Scott Allan could make his Celtic debut against his first senior club.
“It would be Scott’s first game back there since his Tannadice days,” said Mackay-Steven. “He’s looking forward to it and has been looking good in training. Scott brings competition but I’m delighted he’s here. He is a talented player and will add to what we’ve got here. You want to compete with the best players so I’m happy.”
Mackay-Steven believes that United’s supporters are wrong to berate manager Jackie McNamara for their indifferent start to the current campaign.
“Some of the criticism of Jackie has been misplaced,” he said. “He has a very young squad and he’s lost a few players.
“He’s constantly rebuilding. A few of the youngsters have shown what they can do – guys like Blair Spittal, Aidan Connelly and John Souttar – but young players are always going to have a dip.
“They are so talented but they are still learning. I have no doubt Jackie is the right man to bring them forward.”
• Dunfermline will host a Legends charity match against a former Celtic XI at East End Park on 6 September to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Jock Stein. Tickets are £12 for adults and £6 for concessions.