When Brendan Rodgers arrived as Celtic manager, many feared James Forrest was already on his way out.
After such a promising breakthrough, injuries and issues with fitness and form had seen the player’s career stall slightly but Celtic assistant manager Chris Davies says there was never any problem seeing beyond that and spotting the winger’s potential and now, almost two years later, the Scot is considered pivotal to combating the might of Zenit St Petersburg and booking a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.
One of the stand-out performers in Scotland this term, the 26-year-old has made the most of Patrick Roberts being sidelined and consolidated his place in the Celtic team.
It is a team that has fluffed its lines defensively on the bigger stage but, on the front foot, Davies believes attackers like Forrest could still trouble the Russians when they run out at Celtic Park tomorrow night and in the second leg, provided the Scottish champions manage to keep themselves in contention.
“He’s had a great season so far,” said Davies of Forrest. “He played well last season but this year not only is he getting hat-tricks,he’s been one of our better performers in the European games going back to Rosenborg, and you also think back to Bayern Munich at home.
“In terms of tactics and technique, he understands his role in the team but he’s got a very high level of technique. A first touch, the ability to evade people with his second touch plus he’s quick. That allows him to perform at this level. He’s in a good moment – in confident spirits – and you want as many players like that as you can.
“I’m absolutely delighted for James as he’s very humble, hard working and dedicated. It’s always nice to see players like that getting the rewards.”
Acknowledging that players do face periods in their career when injuries can sidetrack advancement, Davies, who was himself forced out the game at a young age due to injury, says there is not always any rhyme or reason to it. But he says that Forrest has benefitted from Rodgers’ approach to training.
“Brendan has a training model he uses and it means all the players are fit and it’s intense, but they get the recovery. That usually helps the guys who have maybe had niggling issues. It’s something James has fitted into and enjoyed.
“Everyone internally spoke really highly of him when we came in. There was no doubt he had a tough time with injuries but we were always confident he could develop and come back in.
“Thankfully that’s happened. He’s quick and you need pace in your team and need to know when to run. It’s about decision making. It’s about how to use your speed and James has shown that in the games.
“He’s getting great experience for Celtic in Europe and with Scotland now as well. He’s an adaptable player and he’s got all the qualities you need in the modern game.”
Emphasising the magnitude of the task that faces Celtic as they take on a Russian team, Davies maintains Roberto Mancini’s men are Champions League quality and one of the toughest opponents they could have faced in the Europa League.
But insisting that Celtic are fit, strong and possessed of a fighting mentality, he says they can also gain an edge if they get the tactical side of things right on the night.
Determined to ensure they are still in the tie by the time they head to the Krestovsky Stadium next week, Davies believes Forrest could be the key to unlocking the opposition defence, with his creativity and burgeoning confidence in front of goal.
“I think it’s just a question of maturing. We were aware of James when we were at Liverpool when he first broke on the scene. We played Celtic in a friendly and we even analysed friendly teams so we did our work in watching Celtic then and at that point he was the stand-out that I could see in the team. A really bright, quick player.
“Obviously time has gone on and he’s carved out a good career for himself and we’ve come in and he’s really flourished. He’s added that end product which is very important for wingers.
“We try and emphasise that. Scott Sinclair is a player who’s done well for Brendan at a couple of clubs. He’s another winger who scores goals. It’s important that you can contribute with assists and goals from that position. James has certainly done that.
“You see the numbers he’s racked up in terms of his trophies and appearances over time and it’s great for clubs to have players like that. I’m sure there’s much more to come for James at Celtic.”