Stokes: Forster gets mad even if you beat him at Celtic training

IT'S enough to make you feel sorry for Anthony Stokes, Leigh Griffiths, Kris Commons, Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki.

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Fraser Forster is closing on Scottish shutout record
Fraser Forster is closing on Scottish shutout record

While strikers at every other club in the Premiership have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the ball past Fraser Forster for the last 12 league games - the giant goalie is now just 31 minutes short of setting a new Scottish record - the Hoops marksmen have reason to empathise with them every time they take to the training field.

Forster and his defenders are every bit as reluctant to concede in a bounce game at Lennoxtown as they are when they play a first-team match.

It's this frugal approach which has made them so difficult to beat, and what will allow them to set a new mark at Tynecastle on Saturday, if they can hold out for those golden minutes.

Stokes - who perhaps vented his frustration at how tough it is to get the ball in the net during training when he crashed in a hat-trick against St Johnstone on Sunday - sees first-hand how good they are.

Forster now appears to have lifted himself to a level whereby the few goals he does concede - as he did in the Scottish Cup defeat to Aberdeen -are taken as a personal insult.

Stokes revealed that is an attitude not reserved solely for match days.

"Fraser even takes it badly if you score against him in training," said the man who is currently enjoying a purple patch of his own.

"He goes in the huff every now and then and kicks a few balls into the forest.

"If you look at him over the past two or three years, he has improved immensely and is one of the top keepers in the world at the minute."

Stokes has been grabbing the goals and the headlines in recent weeks, taking over from Kris Commons, who, for him, is having something of a fallow spell in terms of finding the net.

But the Republic of Ireland hotshot knows the foundation of Celtic's runaway success in the title race lies at the other end, in the safe hands of Forster and his defensive partners.

He is also fully aware what we all see on match days is just the culmination of serious hard work away from the public glare.

While belief in themselves individually and collectively that they won't concede is important, Stokes is in no doubt what is at the core of their success.

"It is just the ability they have," he said. "They are obviously confident lads, and there is a good balance with Efe and Virgil in the centre and Emilio and Adam alongside them. And all the lads who have come in have slotted in very well.

"Obviously, Fraser has been outstanding. If you look back over the last seven or eight league games, he has pulled off three or four absolutely world-class saves.

"That's what is maintaining the clean sheet record."

The further they extend this run, both in terms of keeping the ball out of their net and remaining unbeaten in the quest for a third successive league title, the more of a prized scalp Celtic's is becoming.

While Hearts are languishing at the opposite end of the table, and need no reminding they lost 7-0 on Celtic's last visit to their ground - the only cup-tie Neil Lennon's side won this season - complacency will not be allowed to undermine the Hoops' push for another win to zero.

"Every team wants to score against us and beat us at the minute," recognised Stokes, fast becoming one of the club's longest-serving players.

"Tynecastle will be a good test. It is one of the best atmospheres in Scottish football to go and play in.

"It can be quite hostile. But, the last time we went there, we performed very well, so I am sure we are all looking forward to playing there again."

Certainly, Stokes will head to the capital with his tail - and profile - up after recording his third hat-trick for the club last weekend.

Up until two games ago, he had just seven goals to show for his efforts in 32 appearances this season. That's a disappointing strike rate for a man accustomed to hitting the 20 mark.

He missed the first half of last term after picking up an ankle injury at the start of the campaign, and that led to him playing catch-up when he eventually returned in January, scoring a creditable seven during the run-in to a league/cup double.

With the top scorer for the previous three seasons, Gary Hooper, departing in the summer, the onus was on Stokes to help make up the goals shortfall.

He made a sticky start, but Lennon stuck with him because he could see Stokes was linking well with the prolific Commons, and is now forging a promising partnership with Griffiths.

Nevertheless, it is a huge relief for Stokes to be back on the scoresheet as he accepts, for all the good work they may do for a team, strikers will always be judged by their conversion rate.

He said: "Every time I go on to the field, I want to score goals. That's what I want to bring to the team. But it doesn't always happen."

With age comes a more philosophical approach, however, and the 25-year-old added: "I have had better performances this season than at the weekend, without having scored.

"In every game you want to contribute something, whether it be assists or scoring goals.

"As a striker, though, I love scoring goals. It is what you are measured by.

"Come the end of the season, people tend to forget good performances you have put in.

"So, of course I want to get my stats up, in terms of the goals I have got.

"That's four in the last two games, and I hope to kick on now and try to go on a good run of scoring."

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