New signings in Bhoys zone after taking time to tune up for task

NO MATTER how much - or how little - you pay, you never really know what you have got until you put it to use.

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Teemu Pukki, Derk Boerrigter and Amido Balde are coming to the boil after slow starts to their careers at Celtic
Teemu Pukki, Derk Boerrigter and Amido Balde are coming to the boil after slow starts to their careers at Celtic

That's as true in football management as it is any any other walk of life.

So while Neil Lennon would like nothing better than to see an instant return on every investment in the way he has with Virgil van Dijk, Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen, the Celtic manager is prudent and patient enough to know that, sometimes, good things come to he who is prepared to wait.

Could that yet be the case with Amido Balde, Teemu Pukki, Derk Boerrigter and Nir Biton?

Certainly, the four players recruited along with Van Dijk last summer have taken time to settle and make any real impact.

But Tynecastle on Saturday may have given an indication the penny is beginning to drop with the new Bhoys.

Biton had his best game yet in the Hoops, while Balde and Pukki - who were the subject of enquiries from other clubs during the January window - came off the bench to combine to forage for and score the second goal which ensured another victory was in the bag.

Boerrigter's entrance late on also brought positive signs as the Dutchman quickly got into a central scoring position and was unfortunate to see the Hearts keeper acrobatically tip a shot over.

Now, with the title almost secured, Lennon will do his very best to give all these players the increased game time they need to climb the steep learning curve they are on.

With Leigh Griffiths a doubt for the match at Pittodrie tonight with a calf problem, Pukki could be handed a quick opportunity to pick up where he left off at the weekend.

And, as Johansen battles to recover from an ankle knock, Biton is in line to start another important match.

Lennon has some sympathy for the players trying to show they can become important cogs in the Green Machine and said: "There is always a lot to learn when you join this club.

"There's the pace of the game, the physicality of it here. You see the gradual improvement with these players as they come to terms with it. You see it with Nir Biton and with Leigh Griffiths.

"Even though Leigh knows the Scottish environment, it is a different mentality when you come to Celtic. Expectations are a lot higher.

"But I am pretty pleased with the progress now over the last two or three games."

Celtic's consistency makes it tough for those on the fringes to get game time.

Lennon does his best to ensure no one feels left out. But spare a thought for Lukasz Zaluska.

Such has been the record-breaking form of Fraser Forster, the Polish shot- stopper - who has been understudy to Artur Boruc and now Fraser Forster for the past five years - has made just one appearance all season.

That was far from a happy affair, finishing on the losing side to Morton in the League Cup.

If, as Lennon predicts, big offers to lure Forster away do arrive in the summer, Zaluska would be the senior keeper at the club again ahead of the Champions League qualifiers.

The manager believes he is fortunate the 31-year-old has the temperament to deal with the situation in which he finds himself and said: "It is something Luzasz understands, his role in the squad.

"Again, we are talking about a fantastic professional.

"The problem is that we are on this fantastic run of clean sheets, so it would be difficult to change things the way they are going at the minute."

The desire to maintain the unbeaten run and clean sheet record is dictating Lennon's selection strategy.

He is on course to set his own record, as the manager to collect most points in a title-winning season.

That currently stands at 103, when Martin O'Neill was in charge in season 2001-02, losing only one game on the way.

Despite this achievement, O'Neill's side could not make it three-in-a-row.

Gordon Strachan's did, after he had succeeded O'Neill in 2005.

And Lennon will be one of many very intrigued spectators when two of his main mentors go head-to-head as managers of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

The fact the European Championship qualifier later this year is likely to be staged at Parkhead just adds to the Celtic connection.

And Lennon will savour every moment of the showdown between two men he holds in the highest regard.

"If the game is at Celtic Park, it will be a big deal for the two of them," said the man who played for both.

"It will be special, and the atmosphere in the stadium will be fantastic. It will be like one of the European nights.

"It's an added ingredient to what will be two very important games for both countries."

However, on a personal level, for two men who have just stepped into international management, Lennon reckons it is a draw which comes with some unwanted baggage.

He explained: "It's probably two fixtures they could have done without because it will all be loaded up to be about the two of them.

"I don't think there's a lot between the teams now, and there will be plenty of comparisons between the two of them with them both being very successful here.

"It will be interesting to see how they both approach it with the media and in the games as well."

Diplomatically, Lennon elected not to venture an opinion when asked which of the two managers was best, restricting his answer to: "Martin had a huge influence on my career and I will always be indebted to him.

"And, in the last stages of my career, Gordon had a huge influence on me as well."

While Strachan and O'Neill will inevitably draw most of the spotlight, Lennon would like to see another couple of men take centre stage.

Griffiths has work to do to win back his spot in Strachan's plans, but has every chance if he continues to perform as he has done so far for Celtic.

Anthony Stokes is already back in the fold with the Republic after being frozen out by previous boss, Giovanni Trapattoni.

"That would be fascinating," said Lennon of the prospect of the team-mates being at either end of the pitch when their countries clash.

Football

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