Balde truth pains Celtic striker but Lennon hasn't given up on Amido

THE body language said it all.

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Amido Balde's three goals include a winner against Partick Thistle in October but he has found it tough to earn a starting slot
Amido Balde's three goals include a winner against Partick Thistle in October but he has found it tough to earn a starting slot

Indeed, it screamed. As the TV camera panned round the celebratory Celts in the Firhill dressing room, the smiles were as wide as the gap between the SPFL Premiership champions and the chasing pack.

In a corner, detached from all the dancing and champagne- spraying, was Amido Balde.

Only when the striker from Guinea-Bissau was aware the camera had focused on him did he grin and attempt to join in the party.

It was a mirror image of his first season at the club he joined from Vitoria Guimaraes last summer for a speculative £1.5million.

Balde has been here throughout the successful league campaign, but always on the fringe, never at the heart of the proceedings.

Sure, he has done enough to qualify for a championship medal, with 22 appearances in total, 18 of those in the league.

However, closer analysis shows that 16 of those have been as a substitute - many, like at Tannadice on Saturday, for only the final few minutes when the points were already won.

His three goals include a winner against Thistle at Firhill back in October.

But that was very much the high point of Balde's time at the club, and even it failed to provide the spark which his career in the Hoops badly needs.

When he signed, Balde announced: "I'm a fighter. I believe in myself. I work hard to achieve things. I worked hard to be in this position. I deserve it. That's why I'm wearing a Celtic shirt."

Now, though, as the countdown to the end of his first campaign begins in earnest with the arrival of the split, is the clock ticking on Balde's Celtic career?

He has won a medal, but has he done enough to win over the manager?

Neil Lennon has shown patience with the gangly 22- year-old, insisting from the very start he was going to be a new Bhoy who would need time to adjust to the surroundings and demands at a club of Celtic's size.

But has there been any real evidence he is making the kind of progress which might be expected, or, indeed, required?

And, does Lennon retain the confidence that what he and his scouts first spotted in Balde can be brought to the fore?

The good news for Balde is no panic buttons are about to be pressed - more importantly, no ejector buttons, either.

"I still want to give him some game time this season," said Lennon, who has consistently included Balde among his subs, though not always felt inclined to throw him on.

The manager is playing the long game and continued: "He has got plenty of time. He's only 22. We need to start seeing improvement in him, but that will probably only come with giving him some game time.

"We have got five league matches to go, and he will feature in one or two of them, anyway."

To the outsider looking in, it appears to have developed into a Catch 22 situation with the 6ft 4in No.17.

Lennon needs to see improvement to give him games, but the best place to measure that is in matches. However, the manager has his own take on the conundrum.

"We see it every day in training," he said of Balde's development. "He is not quite there yet. And there are times when the way we want to play probably doesn't quite suit him.

"But then there may be other games where we may want to throw him in there."

Of course, it is not, and can never be, all about one player and Lennon added: "Maybe I should look at giving him some more game time at the minute, but it is difficult when you have got players in form.

"Anthony Stokes is playing very well, Kris Commons is playing great, and Leigh Griffiths has come in and made us better.

"So, for Amido, it is just about breaking through all of that. But I do need to look at it and give him some more time on the pitch."

What can't be overlooked in all of this is that, while Balde is indeed, just 22 - he turns 23 next month - Griffiths is only one year older.

And, despite his well- publicised off-field issues and a niggly ankle problem, the man signed from Wolves for half the fee Balde cost has hit the ground running, bringing goals and, as Lennon pointed out, improvement to the overall effectiveness of the Celtic attack.

But Stefan Johansen is another new recruit from the January window who has settled in immediately without having those advantages.

And, in the past few weeks, 17-year-old Liam Henderson has proved that, if you have the self-confidence and drive, age is no barrier to making the breakthrough.

Balde was the first of last summer's intake of fresh faces, which also included Virgil van Dijk, Derk Boerrigter, Nir Biton and Teemu Pukki.

Since then, Griffiths, Johansen and Holmbert Fridjonsson have been added. It has been a mixed bag of success and sticky starts, with injury leaving the jury out on Boerrigter and Fridjonsson.

But, as always, it is when money is spent on strikers that, with fans, most attention is paid - and least tolerance shown.

It is Lennon's intention to keep an open mind over his latest signings, for a while yet, at any rate.

And, in the case of Balde -who was a regular in the Portuguese Under-19 and Under-20s, that will extend beyond this season because he believes there are mitigating circumstances for his struggle to make serious headway.

He said of the man who started his career at Sporting Lisbon -who put him out on loan to Cercle Brugge in Belgium before allowing him to move on a free to Vitoria Guimaraes, where he helped them win the Portuguese Cup: "He's only had nine months in British football, and that is not a lot. There is a rawness about him, there is no question about that.

"But we need to see him in games, and that is down to me and my backroom staff to work on a scenario where we will get him into the side - and we will."

Football

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