GEORGIOS SAMARAS reckons the return of James Forrest will hand Celtic a double boost as they prepare for a two-pronged attack on the Champions League and SPL title race.
The Greek striker was delighted to see the Parkhead youngster make his long- awaited return to the first team after climbing off the bench in Celtic's 4-0 win over Ross County at the weekend.
Having not featured since the end of October with a hamstring injury, most might have expected Forrest to take a game or two to find his feet. However, he immediately hit the ground running by scoring one and having a major impact on the game.
Samaras believes the return of the Scotland international will provide Neil Lennon's side with a shot in the arm at a crucial stage of the season.
"It was fantastic to see James back," said Samaras. "He might still be a young player but he is also a very important player for us.
"You only have to look at the impact he had when he came on to see how much he offers the team and why the supporters love him. He was given a great welcome back and I thought he looked great.
"He scored a good individual goal and he provides us with another option because he creates so much space and he can get in behind defenders.
"For me, he is a player with everything. He is fast, he is skilful, he can score goals and he works hard for the team.
"Although we have performed really well in the Champions League without him and are top of the league, it is only natural to miss a player like James. He has worked very hard in the last couple of months to get back to full fitness.
"Hopefully he can remain fit now and we can continue to increase our lead at the top of the league and in Europe.
"We're trying not to think about the Champions League last 16 tie with Juventus too much at this moment in time, but when those games come around we'll definitely be hoping James is fully fit and playing well; he will be crucial in those matches."
Lennon's men have now moved five points clear at the top of the SPL and also have the opportunity to extend that by a further three points if they take full advantage of their game in hand.
After some disappointing domestic results, it certainly appears as though the defending champions have turned the corner with back-to-back home wins against St Mirren and Ross County.
Samaras added: "The last couple of matches have been difficult but we've worked hard and collected maximum points.
"We had to work very hard and make sure we didn't get frustrated against St Mirren after having so much possession throughout the game. It was the same on Saturday against Ross County but fortunately we got the first goal just after half-time.
"After that, I thought we played very well. The manager just asked us to try and produce a little bit more quality in the final third and I think we managed that so it was a pleasing win.
"Now we just want to try and keep that going. There are a lot of games at this time of year and if we remain consistent and perform well then hopefully we can be in a very healthy position by the time we return to the Champions League."
Lennon will, of course, be monitoring the performance levels of each individual player between now and then.
The Northern Irishman has moulded a squad with the depth to challenge on many fronts.
The mouthwatering tie against the Serie A champions could lead to a historic Champions League quarter-final place but the manager will have some tough selection calls to make.
However, Samaras says it won't be the fear of missing out of the big last 16 showdown that will force impressive displays.
"There is competition for places anyway," he said. "Not just because there are two games against Juventus.
"You know you must perform well here every week to keep your place because we have a lot of good players waiting for their opportunity and there is a lot of healthy competition for places.
"You need that at a big club. So when you play a game your aim is to play well enough to help the team win the match but also stay in the team for the next game and that is the same for every player.
"Obviously everyone will want to be involved in those games but right now we are fully focused on the league, which you can see from the way we played at the weekend. We want to keep that momentum going."