Kolo Toure set to make his Celtic debut against Astana
KOLO TOURE is set to make his Celtic debut against FC Astana in the Champions League on Wednesday night, with manager Brendan Rodgers insisting a start for the 35-year-old would not be a gamble.
The former Arsenal and Manchester City defender teamed up with his former Liverpool boss last week, but sat out the first leg of the third qualifying round in Kazakhstan, which ended 1-1, and last Saturday's 3-1 International Champions Cup defeat to Barcelona in Dublin as he worked on his fitness.
Rodgers is short on defenders, with Erik Sviatchenko still out with a groin strain and Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic both working their way back following respective hamstring and knee injuries. That leaves Rodgers, who gave a European debut to 20-year-old Eoghan O'Connell alongside the much-criticised Efe Ambrose in the Astana Arena, still limited in central-defensive options for the crunch game at Parkhead.
"Kolo will be in the squad," said the Hoops boss, who revealed Nir Bitton has had a scan on the ankle injury he picked up at the Aviva Stadium, which will almost certainly rule him out, while fellow midfielder Stefan Johansen is back in the squad after missing the last two matches after his wife had a baby.
"He has trained well since he has come in," Rodgers said.
"We left him behind at the weekend to continue with that and I am confident that he can play a part in the game tomorrow. If I feel he can start in the game and he is ready, I will have no problem playing him. I wouldn't think it would be gamble, we are just assessing fitness at the moment.
"He is super-experienced. Kolo has had a great impact already in the short period of time he has had here, but you also have to try to apply a little bit of common sense to it. He has only been in the building a short period of time [and] it is a huge game for us. But I have no doubt that his experience somewhere in the game can be required, if I felt that he wasn't ready to start."
On Bitton's injury, Rodgers said: "He will struggle to make the game. He had quite a bad knock on his medial ligament, so I think he will struggle for fitness for tomorrow."
Celtic have failed to qualify for the Champions League for the last two seasons and rectifying that situation was Rodgers' main remit on taking over from Ronny Deila in May. The Carnlough man insists keeping a clear head amid the "hysteria" which can surround Champions League qualifiers is key to achieving that goal.
"To qualify into the Champions League is a goal that we set at the start of the season, but you have to stay calm," said the former Watford, Reading and Swansea manager.
"We have to stay calm. There will be a lot of hysteria around but, as manager and coaches and players, you have to have that calmness to allow you to fulfil the abilities that you have. We have put in a lot of work and what gives us the confidence is that we are working relentlessly with the team, analysing the opponents.
"We are on the training field as long as we possibly can, we are speaking to players, we are reviewing games, training situations and that hard work gives us confidence that the players can be prepared as best they possibly could. So that is how we are approaching it, we understand the magnitude of it."
After a "resilient" performance in Astana last week, where the Hoops fought back from a goal down to level through striker Leigh Griffiths, the Celtic manager is looking for his side to finish the job off in front of what promises to be a big crowd: "We are really looking forward to playing at home," he said.
"I have sensed in the few games that we have had there that the crowd have been brilliant for us and the players have responded to that and likewise, hopefully tomorrow night we show another side to our game. We showed a real doggedness last week to keep going and maybe, by the end of the game, we were unfortunate not to have won it.
"But tomorrow night, we aim to show that it is our pitch, we have to own the pitch and we need to get the result and that will be the idea for this home game and all of our home games this season."
Five talking points ahead of the crucial encounter at Celtic Park...
CELTIC TO BENEFIT FROM HOME ADVANTAGE?
European nights at Celtic Park are usually electric, with Brendan Rodgers hoping his side will turn it on against FC Astana. However, under previous boss Ronny Deila there were some shaky performances and results in the east end of Glasgow, not least when Maribor shocked the home side with a 1-0 Champions League play-off win in 2014 to go through 2-1 on aggregate.
But a year earlier, the last time a Kazakhstan side came to the east end of Glasgow, Shakhter Karagandy looked to defend a 2-0 win from the first leg of their qualifying play-off, but struggled to cope with the atmosphere and the Hoops fought their way back into the tie, with James Forrest scoring a last-gasp winner.
WILL TOURE START?
The 35-year-old former Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool defender signed for his former Kop boss last week. He did not play in the first leg and was not taken to Dublin for the International Champions Cup against Barcelona in order to catch up on his fitness.
Rodgers has said Toure will feature at some point in the game and that starting him would not be a gamble - but will he be in the first 11?
CAN RODGERS TAKE A CHANCE ON AMBROSE?
The Nigeria international has become the scapegoat of the supporters over the last couple of seasons and was booed after scoring an own goal in the 3-1 defeat by Barcelona last weekend. Rodgers, whose options are limited at centre-back due to injuries, came out in defence of Ambrose afterwards, but will have to decide whether to stand by his man for what is a crunch match.
KEEP THE DEMBELE & GRIFFITHS PARTNERSHIP?
The French striker was paired with Griffiths in a two-man attack in the Astana Arena, but it proved fruitless. Dembele has struggled since arriving in Glasgow this summer and was substituted for midfielder Nir Bitton.
Griffiths moved to his usual lone striker's role and the tide turned in the Hoops' favour, with the Scotland striker grabbing the equaliser. Another big call for Rodgers.
HOW IMPORTANT IS PATRICK ROBERTS?
The on-loan winger from Manchester City was the star man for Celtic in Astana last week and was again impressive against Barcelona. In front of big and encouraging home support at Celtic Park, Roberts' pace and skill could open up the Kazakhstan opponents.