RAMI GERSHON and Anthony Stokes will today be given the chance to show Neil Lennon they are ready to play their part in the pivotal stage of Celtic's season.
The loan signing defender and the striker who has been out since July with an ankle injury are scheduled to play in a reserve team game against Motherwell, weather permitting.
Despite the fact Kelvin Wilson was starting a two-game suspension and Efe Ambrose is on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Nigeria, Israeli international Gershon – who suffered a slight strain while training in Spain last week – got no further than the bench during Saturday's 4-1 win over Hearts.
Versatile duo, Charlie Mulgrew and Mikael Lustig, were the preferred central defensive pairing.
Stokes – who, after his long lay-off and issues away from the pitch, is bursting to impress to convince Celtic to offer him a new contract – was another unused sub at the weekend.
But a good showing by both men today could see them involved against Dundee United tomorrow night in the match which was postponed at the start of the season while Celtic played Real Madrid in Philadelphia, then again in December when they had to play Arbroath in a Scottish Cup replay.
And, with the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final coming up on Sunday, Lennon will be delighted if he can get another two players up and running and pushing for places.
James Forrest might also be in contention for the game at Hampden, though, given the youngster's injury-riddled season, Lennon is adopting an ultra-cautious approach to the winger's rehab.
The manager had initially hoped Forrest could use last week's training camp in Spain as the springboard for his return to action.
But, having already broken down once since originally succumbing to hamstring trouble at the end of October, the dynamic 21-year-old will not be rushed this time.
Lennon said: "It is a different hamstring injury from the one James got in October. This one he actually did when he made his comeback in the game against Ross County here just before Christmas.
"Then, on Boxing Day, he played at Dundee for 15 minutes with it, and he has been out since then. We are hoping he will start training again at the end of the week.
"All I want is this kid to get a run of games because he will give us so much. At a crucial stage of the season, he can be very important."
In his absence, however, full-backs Adam Matthews and Emilio Izaguirre proved at the weekend that they could make the runs down the wings and provide the ammunition for the men in the middle.
Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras gorged themselves on the early feast of good crosses from Matthews, in particular, to put Celtic 2-0 up inside 12 minutes, and effectively crush the hopes of an injury and suspension-ravaged Hearts.
The shaky capital club did steady the ship and grabbed an unexpected lifeline midway through the second half in the form of a Jason Holt shot which deflected off Mulgrew beyond Lukasz Zaluska, deputising for Fraser Forster, who has a neck injury.
The effect was to re-awaken Celtic, and two goals in the final six minutes – Hooper grabbing his 20th of the season, and Lassad getting his first-ever at Celtic Park – restored the true gulf between the sides.
Lennon was relieved that the break in momentum caused by the mid-season shutdown for two weeks did not affect his side's charge towards retaining their title.
But he revealed he had had a quiet word in their ears beforehand to ensure it would be a seamless restart.
Lennon explained: "I said to the players, 'It's not like you have had a close season. It has only been two weeks, and the second of those you were back working in Spain, anyway'.
"Sometimes, psychologically, when you have been away from Glasgow, you think we have been gone for ages. But the reality is that they have had just a week off.
"We tried to emphasise that to them, and assured them they would be fine and match-fit, so just to get out there. To be fair, we started off at a good tempo and got two quick goals."
He went on: "What pleased me more than anything was that those first two were tap-ins, which is what I have been wanting. I have asked people to get on the end of crosses, and Adam Matthews provided both of them.
"Then Emilio Izaguirre supplied the cross for Lassad to get the fourth near the end. So, there were a lot of positives to take from the performance."
Lennon was particularly delighted that his players put on a show for the large crowd which turned out on a bitterly cold day, and with so many important and expensive matches in their diaries.
"That's the way I'd like us to play, particularly at home," he enthused. "We lost our way for 10 minutes in the second half. But, overall, I was delighted with the quality of the play and the performance.
"Some of the football we played in the first half was the best we've played for a long time, and I think we entertained the fans."
The one downside on the day was the rib cartilage injury which forced off Kris Commons, and the slight groin strain sustained by Matthews. Both will be assessed today.