On-form Celtic strike partners Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes have special bond to bring out best in each other

GARY HOOPER is on the verge of the England squad – but, paradoxically, is also suffering what, for him, is a goal drought.

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Celtic's Gary Hooper is SPL Player of the Month for January
Celtic's Gary Hooper is SPL Player of the Month for January

The striker has failed to find the net in any of his last four appearances, including last week's Champions League tie against Juventus when Roy Hodgson was at Parkhead to check on his form.

Reports now claim it was Kelvin Wilson who caught the eye of the England boss, and that he may be the Celt joining Fraser Forster in making the national squad breakthrough.

But help is on hand for Hoops with the return of Anthony Stokes to fitness and the first team.

The chemistry between the strike pair has lost none of its potency, as their link-up play during the 6-2 win over Dundee United on Saturday confirmed.

Stokes has been one of the main providers of scoring opportunities for Hooper in the two seasons they have played together, as well as being the man challenging the Englishman for the top-scorer prize.

But that competition has been shelved for this campaign due to the fact the Republic of Ireland striker was sidelined from early August until last month with an ankle injury sustained in a pre-season friendly against Inter Milan.

Hooper is delighted to see Stokes back and firing in the goals again – his late double against United made it three in just two starts since his return.

But more important for the wannabe England international, the partnership is also back in place – and can be a major boost in his quest to win a call-up from Hodgson.

Stokes played for his country four times before Giovanni Trapattoni dropped him from his plans after the player failed to accept an invitation to be part of the squad for an end-of-season double-header in 2011.

He is in no doubt Hooper has the quality required to make the leap into national contention.

Stokes said: "I definitely think he is good enough to make the step up to the England squad.

"Last season, he scored 29 goals, so you can see the qualities he has to his game."

Qualities which are enhanced by the presence of Stokes alongside him in the Celtic side.

While Lassad, Miku, Georgios Samaras, Tony Watt and Kris Commons have all been tried as partners for Hoops, it is the alchemy generated when Stokes is in there with him that brings out the very best in the goal machine.

Surprisingly, Stokes reveals it is not the hours spent on the training ground together which makes this so potent.

In his opinion, it is nature not nurture which has formed this bond and understanding.

"It seemed to start as soon as we got together a few years ago, and it has just clicked again as soon as I came back into the side," said Stokes.

"I think it is very difficult to work on, a relationship with a striker and how you play together.

"It is just an understanding you have with certain players.

"And, luckily enough, I have come back into the team and it seems to still be there."

Saturday was the first match the pair have started together since Stokes won his fight against the first serious injury of his much-travelled career.

Hooper was left out of the match at Inverness the weekend before, the first game Stokes started since his return.

The positions were then reversed when Stokes was surprisingly omitted from the squad which played against Juventus last Tuesday.

From the sidelines, the Irishman has been impressed by the way Hooper has overcome his barren start to the season to blast home 23 goals, most coming in bursts of four or five games.

And he has been as surprised as everyone else that the goals have dried up for his partner since he found the net against St Mirren at Hampden on January 27.

However, Neil Lennon has been quick to praise Hooper for the way he is playing and for the contribution he has been making to the games.

Stokes echoes the manager's opinion. "Gary's all-round game has been outstanding," he insisted.

"He holds the ball up, and, as a striker, you have to do that. You need to bring your team-mates into the game.

"Defending starts at the front as well, so there are a lot of different aspects to being a striker, other than scoring goals.

"But at the end of the day, that is what you are judged on."

It would be a brave man who bet against Hooper ending his goal-less run at Perth tonight when Celtic face St Johnstone, simply because history tells us you can't keep him off the scoresheet for long.

The Hoops go into this match on the back of a resounding victory over Dundee United, and looking to stretch their advantage at the top of the table, which currently stands at 18 points.

Unlike earlier in the season, when they lost at McDiarmid Park and dropped points in other games they were expected to win, they appear much more capable of handling SPL games scattered around big European dates.

Despite being involved in the last 16, Stokes believes everyone's focus is on getting the title wrapped up as soon as possible.

"I don't think we have taken our eye off the ball at all," he said. "We went up to Inverness before the Juventus game, which is one of the toughest away grounds to go to, and played against the team second in the league, and we won.

"When there is a back-up of games and you are playing in the Champions League midweek and have SPL games at the weekends, you are looking at three games in seven or eight days.

"That's tough for anyone. But we are used to that at this club.

"Even this week, we had Juventus on Tuesday, Dundee United at the weekend, and now we have St Johnstone tonight, so it is a regular thing to be competing in two or three competitions at a time.

"That should not be an excuse. We just go out and try to win every game we play."

The winter break has been a real bonus in this regard and Stokes reflected: "A break at any stage of the season, when we have so many games, is good for everyone.

"It just helps players rest their legs and it helps mentally as well.

"It certainly helped us to have this break and the performances of late have been very good."

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