Stokes' form gives Celtic boost for Milan showdown
Neil Lennon will fly out tomorrow with his Celtic squad for Wednesday's meeting with AC Milan encouraged by what he saw when the Hoops' opening Champions League group stage opponents could only scramble a draw in Turin thanks to a Mario Balotelli penalty kick after six minutes of injury-time.
Lennon was present in the Olimpico stadium on Saturday night to see Torino take a 2-0 lead with goals from their captain, Danilo D'Ambrosio and Alessio Cerci, but a late comeback by Milan secured a share of the points through Sully Muntari's trundling late effort and Balotelli's contribution from the spot.
The talk before the match had largely concerned the return of Kaka – who scored an extra-time winner against Celtic at the San Siro to earn a Champions League quarter-final place in March 2007 – but although he assumed the captain's armband when Ricardo Montolivo left the field shortly before the interval, the Brazilian was in muted mood.
One of Lennon's summer priorities was to increase the pace available in his squad, and now he has food for thought about Dirk Boerrigter, who featured in Celtic's 3-1 win over Hearts at Tynecastle earlier in the day.
Milan were caught out for the opener by D'Ambrosio's piercing angled run from the left to beat their offside trap and he had time to finish with a low drive despite having to check his stride and switch the ball on to his stronger right foot. Cerci likewise sliced open the Milanese backline with a run from the halfway line to score with a cute chip over the goalkeeper.
The task facing Celtic remains significantly daunting, but Lennon was satisfied with what he saw at Tynecastle before jetting off to Italy. Celtic's intent was signalled early when a Boerrigter cross from the left was met on the volley by Kris Commons, which swept just over, and it was Commons who put Celtic ahead from the spot after Jamie Hamill had been judged to have handled a header from Anthony Stokes.
Although Hearts levelled after the break with a well-worked strike from Jason Holt, they were behind again in short order when Stokes fastened on to a Commons header to shoot home, and the Dubliner turned provider in the closing moments with a deft flick over Jamie MacDonald for Teemu Pukki to head his first Celtic goal a few minutes after making his debut appearance as a substitute.
Free of injury – and some of the unwanted baggage that accompanied him off the field last season – Stokes has taken advantage of the departure of Gary Hooper to make a case to be one of Lennon's first picks. "I'm just playing my normal game and enjoying my football," said the striker.
"It took me a while to come back from the injury last year but I'm playing with no problems and no niggles. For any striker, to be in the team and scoring goals breeds confidence in yourself.
"I'm delighted with my form. Since I've come back from pre-season, I've felt fit and strong and I just want to maintain it now.
"I've always felt comfortable and I've always enjoyed being here at the club. Listen, on days like Saturday you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I've always enjoyed it, but this year has just started well, I suppose."
There is, however, the seemingly interminable question of when – or even if – Stokes and Celtic will come to terms on a deal that will keep him at the club beyond the end of his current contract, which expires at the end of next June. "My agent spoke to the club a couple of months ago, and I'm obviously eager to try to get it signed but there's not much I can do," Stokes said.
"I'm waiting to hear back from my agent and I'll take it from there.
"I would like to get it sorted, to be honest with you, because I've only got seven or eight months left on my contract but, as I said, it's out of my hands and I'll just keep playing my football and see what happens.
"Listen, my agent spoke to them when I turned down the first contract but we're just waiting for the club to come back.
"I want to stay but there's not really been much more talk since the last contract, so I don't know.
"I hope so but you can just never tell." (© Daily Telegraph, London)