Celtic boss Neil Lennon sweats over key trio who can turn defence into attack in Juventus crunch

CELTIC believe they are up to the task.

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Neil Lennon saw his Celtic side run out 3-1 winners over Inverness
Neil Lennon saw his Celtic side run out 3-1 winners over Inverness

But will they be up to the pace when the Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus kicks off tomorrow night?

The long-waited opportunity to take a Scottish club to the quarter-finals of Europe's elite competition for the first time was always going to provide the ultimate test for Neil Lennon and his players.

However, the challenge has been made even more difficult by the serious possibility one of the main weapons in the Hoops' armoury, pace, will be denied them for this tie.

With Georgios Samaras and James Forrest battling to recover from hamstring injuries, and Efe Ambrose trying to beat the clock and travel fatigue to be in his important place at the heart of the defence, the tried and trusted formula which has carried Celtic this far may not be available to them when they need it most.

The swift transition from defence to attack, often begun by Ambrose and taken up by Sami and Forrest, has been as important to the Hoops as their set-piece delivery.

At best, it looks like Lennon may have one of these three genuinely quick players available to him tomorrow, with Forrest – whose recurring problem has now been identified as neurological – leading the way.

Lennon is prepared to check on the condition of Ambrose when he finally gets back from playing in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in the early hours of tomorrow morning and will give Sami until the last possible moment to recover from the thigh-muscle tear he suffered less than two weeks ago.

After receiving the latest update from the medical staff, Lennon confirmed: "We will give Sami as long as possible to show he is fit.

"He is an important player for us in these games, and I hope he will be again tomorrow."

The Greek internationalist has become the Hoop's talisman in Europe, and Lennon did not attempt to down play his importance to the team.

"Sami's an amazing player, and he is a talent," said the boss. "Outside of Scott Brown, he has been here the longest, and he has been a real leader on and off the field.

"I knew he was talented, but he was very hit and miss. Then we had a long chat one day, and he has never really looked back since then.

"While I've showed a lot of faith in him, he has repaid it in bundles and he is now a top, top, European forward."

Despite trying to keep the door open for these players, the manager knows the importance of having a back-up plan which can be adopted seamlessly and without sending a negative vibe through the dressing room.

It is a huge test of his composure and tactical nous, but it is an examination which Lennon is embracing as he continues to travel the steep managerial learning curve which began less than three years ago.

Which is why accentuating the positives is one of the key cards he is using.

To this end, the timely return of Fraser Forster in the 3-1 victory over Inverness at the weekend – the shadow team's goals coming from Kris Commons, Rami Gershon and Miku – is something he is quick to highlight.

The manager believes the giant figure, who has broken through to the England squad on the back of his performances against sides like Barcelona, gives everyone in the team extra confidence and explained: "That's because he is a top goalkeeper.

"He will be a huge presence for us again tomorrow.

"Fraser has been a pivotal player in our European campaign so far.

"He came through the 90 minutes against Inverness unscathed, which is great, and he will feel the benefit of that."

Lennon admits he would have felt more comfortable had Forster managed to recover from his neck injury earlier, but is grateful all the hard work undertaken by the medical staff has come good.

Lennon said: "We felt he would be able to get back in time for the game against Raith Rovers last week.

"But that's okay because he is a tremendous athlete and he is feeling good."

The patience Lennon has had to show as he has waited on the return of Forster is now being tested as he monitors the progress of Samaras, Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre, though the Honduran is expected to be available to face Juventus.

Patience will also have to be shown by the supporters tomorrow night as Lennon has identified the folly of being caught up in the auspicious moment and trying, naively, to make an impact from the first whistle.

Of course, he would like to make a lightning start, but underlines that this two-leg affair will have a long way to run.

"This is not decided after the first leg, whether we win tomorrow, it's a draw, or we are behind," said the manager.

"But we will try to get a foothold in the tie, and we are at home, so we will try to take the game to Juventus any way we can."

If they are deprived of the pace which has been such a successful element of their game plan in previous rounds, it could force a much more cautious approach.

Against that, they are aware how much of a factor the special atmosphere generated at Parkhead on top European nights can be, and want to harness and utilise this to best effect.

The down side can be the heavy expectation it places upon their shoulders.

What has to be kept in mind when considering their excellent home record is that all the wins have had to be earned –and it will be no different this time.

Lennon said: "We are in the last 16 again, and, over the years, we have had Barcelona and AC Milan here, now we have got Juventus.

"It's great to be in this position, and it's terrific for the players to have this to look forward to, because they have earned it.

"I just hope they will do themselves justice on the night, which I am sure they will."

If they do, Juve will know they have been in a game.

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