Players warm to the challenges ahead at Spanish camp HQ

CELTIC have escaped the chill January wind whipping across their Lennoxtown training centre and settled in perfectly to their winter break base camp a pedalo ride from Marbella.

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Mo Bangura will try to prove his worth after returning from a loan spell at AIK
Mo Bangura will try to prove his worth after returning from a loan spell at AIK

While the SPL champions – and, surprisingly, Ross County, who will arrive here at the weekeend – are unique among Scottish clubs in having the resources to fly their players to warmer climes, they have quickly discovered they are far from alone on the Costa Del Sol.

In fact, it is almost standing room only here as a plethora of well-known clubs vie with the Hoops for training pitch space.

German teams are the most numerous, though, thankfully there is no sign yet of any towels appearing overnight to book the substitute benches.

Fortuna Dusseldorf, Mainz, SC Freiburg, Nuremberg and Preussen Munster are all here.

Belgian clubs have also been prominent, with Club Brugge, Lokeren, RAEC Mons and Zulte Wagerem. The Dutch are also in town, represented by Feyenoord and Roda JC.

All have set up camp around the Marbella area and, thanks to some careful match planning, have been playing a series of bounce games in various local stadiums and training centres to keep their players ticking over ahead of the return to their own countries and the resumption of their domestic football.

Celtic will round off their stay here with just such a sharpener against Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday evening at the impressively-equipped Marbella Football Centre.

The Romanians were delighted to accept the invitation to provide the opposition for the side which has hugely enhanced its reputation around Europe by reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.

Steaua have been enjoying their own purple patch. They are currently top of their league and next month will face Ajax in the last 32 of the Europa League.

With home games against Hearts then Dundee United awaiting Celtic when they get back to Glasgow next week, and replacements for the suspended Kelvin Wilson and Africa Cup of Nations-bound Efe Ambrose required, this should be a useful opportunity to try out potential candidates for central defence.

Rami Gershon will arrive at the training camp with a work permit and an ambition to be a serious contender.

The Israeli international will embrace the opportunity to get to know his new team-mates. But he may find himself on the training field when the rest are taking it a bit easier as his lack of game time in recent weeks following an injury while with Standard Liege must be considered a handicap to him making an instant impact.

It will be much easier to get the work into him in this environment than would have been the case had the squad remained at Lennoxtown where the quickly-deteriorating conditions can often curtail training sessions outdoors.

Just as eager to show that he is ready to be included in manager Neil Lennon's plans for Tuesday's bounce game and the subsequent return to SPL action will be long-term injury absentee Anthony Stokes.

The hours spent in the gym and working under the supervision of the medical and fitness team since damaging an ankle in a friendly against Inter Milan in July are now behind the striker.

With his contract due to run out at the end of the season, Stokes wants to make up for lost time and remind everyone what he has to offer to the club.

Likewise, Mo Bangura – recently returned from his loan spell at AIK in Stockholm – has a point to prove, though the Sierra Leone striker must do it from well down a pecking order which is headed by Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras and also includes Tony Watt, Lassad Nouioui and Miku.

The Celtic management and coaches will hope that, with a bit of sun on his back, and back in the country where he played so well for Getafe, Venezuelan loan signing Miku will feel better about himself and begin to show the predatory instincts which have won him so many caps.

Joe Ledley is another who will be delighted to be back in harness after his month-long lay-off as he rested his groin, and the warmer weather should provide the perfect conditions for the Welshman to step up his training regime.

James Forrest has been an unhappy companion in the treatment room at Lennoxtown, and he, too, is expected to benefit greatly from working in these conditions.

Not that the emphasis is all on hard work. Though coach Garry Parker has described this as an opportunity to have a mini pre-season, the core fitness was established in the long summer training sessions.

The 35 games played since then have taken their toll, both physically and mentally, and the 17-day hiatus could not have come at a better time.

After time spent with their families and friends – Hooper, Ledley, Kris Commons and Adam Matthews headed for Dubai, while Victor Wanyama made a flying visit to Nairobi – the already-tight-knit group will use this week to become even closer as they focus on the monumental months which lie ahead of them when the rewards for all their hard work can be secured.

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