Football Expert & Columnist
Watt an opportunity
Andy Walker says there hasn't been a better time for young Celtic players like Tony Watt to impress.
Last Updated: 27/08/12 12:23pm
Having achieved an excellent 2-0 first leg away win over Swedish champions Helsingborgs, Neil Lennon's Celtic are odds-on to get back to the group stages of the Champions League this season after a four-year absence.
They'll go into Wednesday's return match at Celtic Park full of confidence following their 4-2 victory over Inverness Caley Thistle at the weekend, a game where young Tony Watt once again caught the eye.
There cannot be a better time to be a young Celtic player hoping to get a taste of first team action. With Rangers exiled in the lower leagues for a number of years, the likelihood is that last season's SPL champions will comfortably retain their title.
Neil Lennon was afforded the luxury of making six changes to his starting eleven in what proved to be a one-sided contest against Terry Butcher's men, resting some of his experienced players for Wednesday's crucial second leg Champions League qualifier against Swedish side Helsingborgs.
Tony Watt and Filip Twardzik both started and were impressive while young full-back Joe Chalmers came on to make his first team debut. With four league goals in just five appearances, Watt must surely now be ahead of £2million signing Mo Bangura for first team action.
Gary Hooper remains the main goal threat but with Anthony Stokes injured for a few weeks, Watt proved to be more than a capable deputy. I doubt he'll start in such a pressurised environment on Wednesday night but given his willingness to work so hard off the ball and his natural finishing ability in and around the penalty box, I'm convinced Watt will start more than a few SPL games now.
Looking at Celtic's bench on Saturday, there's a queue of young men alongside him itching for some first team action. Paul Slane managed some game time last weekend at Ross County and Jackson Irvine and Calum McGregor joined him on the bench. In Rangers absence, the simple truth is that no other SPL club has the resources to match Celtic over the course of a demanding league season and all of these players will probably be fast-tracked into first team action.
It's a chance they should grab with both hands. Playing reserve team football has its purpose but there's no substitute for learning the game playing week-in, week-out against experienced players.
For the moment though, it's all about securing Celtic's place in Europe's premier club competition.
There's no doubt in my mind that Celtic rode their luck in the first leg. Any side that can keep a clean sheet despite allowing 17 goal attempts from the opposition has enjoyed a bit of good fortune but the important thing is to be professional and ensure there are no slip-ups. Celtic Park will be rocking in anticipation of getting back into some guaranteed action against the best sides on the continent.
By all accounts, Celtic will bring in around £15million-£20million just by taking part in the Champions League and have already banked upwards of £5m from the sale of Ki Sung-Yeung to Swansea.
But crucially, thanks to the absence of Rangers from the top flight and the potential drop in income, Neil Lennon will see very little of that cash to strengthen his side.
Who knows, Celtic's current crop of young stars may even progress from SPL football and get a taste of Champions League action.
Here's hoping they're ready for it.