Celtic find Turkey food for thought

BRING it on home, Bhoys.

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Celtic boss Neil Lennon was able to give a mix of fringe players and talented youngsters a taste of the big time in Turkey
Celtic boss Neil Lennon was able to give a mix of fringe players and talented youngsters a taste of the big time in Turkey

That's the invitation from Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, to the players who took the opportunity in the Antalya Cup to show they do have something to contribute to the Scottish champions this season.

The trophy itself was left behind, in the keep of Galatasaray, who, after being held to a goalless draw over 90 minutes, won the subsequent penalty shootout 5-4.

However, Lennon can reflect on an extremely worthwhile exercise, the object of which, quite apart from giving his squad the chance to enjoy better training conditions and, for a clutch of first-team regulars, some much-needed rest and relaxation, was to provide a platform for rising stars and fringe men to show what they can bring to the party.

Lennon is concerned he has leant very heavily on the same core of players in the opening 34 games of the season.

Now, with their winning streak creating a virtually-unassailable lead in the SPFL championship, his mind is already moving fast forward to what he has got - and what he will need - for next season.

To this end, while Peter Lawwell continues to pursue signing targets, the manager took the chance to pitch several of his peripheral players into something akin to competitive action against Trabzonspor then Galatasaray.

Could any of the rising stars or summer recruits still waiting to make their mark grab the opportunity?

As Lennon prepares to lead them back to Glasgow today, the skeleton squad which remained in situ to contest last night's final - the bulk of the first-team players having already been dispatched on holiday after Thursday's win over Trabzonspor - he will be digesting the fact he has been given plenty of food for thought by those hungry for a slice of the action.

While Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde used the opening game to confirm they do have the ability to score goals for Celtic, against Galatasaray it was the turn of Nir Biton and Derk Boerrigter to step up to the plate.

The Dutchman, his first few months so beset by injury, not only showed the skill and pace to beat his man and deliver decent crosses, he also got under the skin of the Turkish champions.

So much so, midway through the second half, he was the victim of a punch delivered by a very frustrated Galatasaray midfielder, Emre Colak.

Lennon was incensed, not least by the lack of reaction from the match officials.

But it drew an interesting response from the Celtic manager who almost immediately replaced Boerrigter with Calvin Miller, the Scotland starlet who had turned 16 just three days earlier.

It summed up Lennon's approach to the entire opportunity which this invitation presented.

He not only wanted to see what he had in reserve, but wanted to expose youngsters and fringe men to what they will be expected to contend with if they do realise their ambitions of becoming part of his plans for the future.

To this end, the Akdeniz University Stadium was an appropriate venue for this match, which was a massive step in the learning curve of so many youngsters given the chance to sample a senior game against seasoned and respected pros such as Wesley Sneijder, former Arsenal defender Emmanuel Eboue, and ex-Liverpool midfielder, Albert Riera.

It was far from the most significant match the Hoops will play this season - or any other - but it still represented a huge test of character and maturity as the Turkish champions brought a sizeable support, pyro et al, to the coastal resort.

The side selected by Lennon was so lacking in experience that 22-year-old James Forrest was deemed the 'father-figure' and given the armband and the responsibility of leading this group of Bhoys into action.

Lukasz Zaluska, with a series of decent saves throughout the match, reminded Lennon his prolonged spell in Fraser Forster's massive shadow has not left him bereft of ability, and did his bit by coaching the kids in front of him who comprised what must surely have been the youngest back line ever fielded in a Celtic first-team game.

After making his debut as a sub against Trabzonspor, 18- year-old Eoghan O'Connell - so impressive in the Uefa Youth League games - was in central defence, partnered by 19-year-old Marcus Fraser.

Lennon entrusted the full-back positions to another pair of 19-year olds, John Herron and Darnell Fisher.

In front of them was the real kid in the starting XI, 17-year-old Liam Henderson, who was handed a midfield spot alongside Biton and Boerrigter.

Up front, two more survivors from the win over Trabzonspor, Pukki and Balde, were rewarded for their goals which helped Celtic book their place in the final with another chance to show they are beginning to knock off the rough edges which have snagged their progress to date.

They will all be disappointed their sterling efforts, often in the face of uncompromising tackling, did not reap the reward of a trophy.

With Boerrigter and Forrest providing the ammunition, Pukki and Balde did have chances, though the most audacious effort came from Biton, whose attempt to lob keeper, Fernando Muslera, from inside his own half was just a foot too high.

Zaluska's saves ensured their lack of fortune in terms of scoring kept the game level. But the Polish shot-stopper could do nothing about the five excellent penalties executed by by Galatasaray.

With Forrest having seen his spot-kick - Celtic's second - saved by Muslera, the conversions by Henderson, Biton, Bahrudin Atajic and Balde (who showed ultimate confidence by chipping his down the centre) came up just short.

However, over the piece, Lennon will feel he is coming home a winner on so many other levels.

CELTIC: Zaluska; Herron, O'Connell, Fraser, Fisher; Forrest, Biton, Henderson, Boerrigter; Pukki, Balde. Subs: Fasan, Atajic, Chalmers, Breslin, McLaren, Caird, Miller.

Football

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