CHRIS DAVIES believes James Forrest could be Celtic’s match-winner tomorrow night against Zenit St Petersburg and allow them to take a massive step towards the last 16 of the Europa League.
Forrest has been on fire this season, especially on the European stage, and is fresh from bagging a hat-trick in last Saturday’s William Hill Scottish Cup defeat of Partick Thistle that keeps Celtic on course for the unprecedented feat of back to back domestic Trebles.
Davies, Brendan Rodgers’ assistant, feels the threat of Forrest – and that of Scott Sinclair – could hold the key to a positive first leg result.
However, he has cautioned that the Russians – bossed by Roberto Mancini – are a high-quality outfit who will be extremely difficult opponents.
Davies said: “James has had a great season so far. He played well last season but this year not only is he getting hat-tricks like that, he’s been one of our better performers in the European games going back to Rosenborg.
“You also think back to Bayern Munich at home.
“In terms of tactics and technique, he understands his role in the team but he’s got a very high level of technique. A first touch, the ability to evade people with his second touch plus he’s quick.
“That allows him to perform at this level. He’s in a good moment – in confident spirits.
“You want as many players like that as you can.”
Forrest has become a better player since the arrival of Rodgers and Davies just when it looked he might have to leave the club when he turned down a new contract under the previous manager Ronny Deila.
Davies said: “I’m absolutely delighted for James as he’s very humble, hardworking and dedicated. It’s always nice to see players like that getting the rewards.
“I think it’s just a question of maturing. We were aware of James when we were at Liverpool when he first broke on the scene.
“We played Celtic in a friendly. At that point he was the stand-out that I could see in the team. A really bright, quick player. He looked a real breakthrough player.
“Time has gone on and he’s carved out a good career for himself. Obviously, we’ve come in and he’s really flourished.
“He plays in different positions so he has to be adaptable. He’s added that end product which is very important for wingers.
“We try and emphasise that. Scott Sinclair is a player who’s done well for Brendan at a couple of clubs. He’s another winger who scores goals.
“It’s important that you can contribute with assists and goals from that position. James has certainly done that.”
The Celtic coaching staff have watched hours of footage of the Russians in action and scout John McGlynn got the very latest by watching Zenit play friendlies in Turkey last week.
“They are a very disciplined team,” said Davies. “They have a lot of attacking threats in the team and I think their mindset will be balanced, to be honest, because they have a very good team and a very experienced manager.
“They have tactical organisation, defensively they are very compact and organised and with the ball they can play equally well in possession as they can in counter-attack.
“They’ve got good technical players who make good passes and good decisions at the right times and they have pace, power and quality to counter-attack. They’ve also got set-piece quality and the delivery and execution of that. So they are an all-round top team – a Champions League level team.”
He added: “That’s what we are prepared for and what we need to do is find a way to stop them and hurt them.
“At Liverpool, we played them at the same round five years ago when Brendan was the manager. We drew the game over the two-legs 3-3, but went out on away goals. There was a bit of talk about their condition pre-game but they were in very good condition.
“They’ve had a couple of training camps now to build up their fitness and plenty of games to be ready so I am expecting them to be physically at a level to compete.”
The good news for Celtic is that Tom Rogic should make the bench, therefore offering an attacking threat if they need it.
Davies added: “There’s a chance that Tom will be involved in the Zenit games. We’ll just have to see how he is and make a decision.
“We have a few injured players returning to training which is good. We are in a good place.”
Meanwhile, Davies has heaped praise on the Celtic support he hopes, along with Forrest, provide a solid platform for the Hoops to build on when they go to Russia next week.
“Hopefully, it’s something we can use to inspire us,” he said. “The fans generate the most incredible atmosphere. I have never heard noise like I have heard at Celtic Park at a football game before. It really is a fantastic experience in the stadium.
“On the pitch, we have to perform equally as well to inspire the fans. We will be working together and that’s the plan. It’s a phenomenal place to play.”