THERE are another three months of the season still to go and a footballer’s form can, especially when he is a winger, desert him during that time.
But even in the unlikely event that fate befalls James Forrest, who ensured Celtic edged into the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup with the first hat-trick of his professional career yesterday, he will remain a strong contender for the Player of the Year awards.
The 26-year-old had, having netted 13 goals in all competitions and produced some exceptional individuals displays in Europe, been enjoying a fine campaign before this meeting with Partick Thistle.
The Scotland internationalist, though, stepped it up to another level. It was not just his strikes which impressed. His all-round play was of the highest standard. He was a deserved winner of the Man of the Match champagne. The same will be true if he is honoured at the end of the season.
Forrest’s showing helped Celtic to put the 1-0 defeat they suffered to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in the Ladbrokes Premiership the week before behind them and gave them cause for optimism ahead of their opening Europa League meeting with Zenit St Petersburg at Parkhead on Thursday evening.
“He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” said Rodgers. “His game has come on this year again. He is a really effective player. He has got that ability. Technically, he is very good, one of the best receivers of the ball I have ever worked with. Now he is adding goals. He has got that hunger to score goals. All three of his goals were absolutely outstanding. He was the class player on the pitch and thoroughly deserves his match ball.”
Forrest opened the scoring after just 76 seconds, bagged his second shortly afterwards with a sensational individual effort and then notched his third in the 54th minute after a well-worked attacking move involving Charly Musonda, Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair.
While the wide man excelled the same could not be said of every one of his team mates or the Celtic side as a whole. They played well in spells and probably just about merited a triumph which keeps them on course for a second consecutive domestic treble. But as has so often been the case in recent months they were not wholly convincing.
Jozo Simunovic gifted Kris Doolan a goal with a slack passback to Dorus de Vries in the 20th minute. The striker lobbed the keeper with a sublime effort to make it 2-1. Conor Sammon also netted with six minutes remaining after replacing the scorer to give his side a chance of levelling late on and forcing a replay.
Kieran Tierney did well to prevent the Firhill club from grabbing an equaliser in injury-time after Chris Erskine had picked out Ryan Edwards in the Celtic six yard box with a cross from wide on the left. The left back’s perfectly-timed block allowed De Vries to claim possession on his goal line. “It was a brilliant bit of defending, “said Rodgers. “They could have made it three each. That would have been a really, really poor scoreline for us.”
There was, with Mikael Lustig and Simunovic both returning to partner Kristoffer Ajer and Tierney in the Celtic defence, no excuse for the display. If they perform as poorly in defence against Zenit they will be punished far more ruthlessly and will have no hopes of progressing.
Alan Archibald, the Thistle manager, was proud with how his charges had fought back after falling two goals behind early on and then again at the start of the second half. “The lads showed great character to come back,” he said. “They had us on the ropes for 15 minutes, but we did well to come back into it. Once we got into it, we made it a cup tie. That was our aim. “
With the terrible news that their former player Liam Miller had lost his battle with cancer at the age of just 36 breaking late on Friday night, this result was tinged with sadness for Celtic.
The outcome of a football match, even one as important as this Scottish Cup tie against their top flight, seemed insignificant in comparison with the loss of a father, a husband, a son and a friend in the prime of his life.
A minute’s silence in honour of the Republic of Ireland internationalist was impeccably observed by both sets of supporters before kick-off and the players all wore black armbands as as a mark of respect.