REO HATATE is walking a fitness tightrope as Ange Postecoglou prepares his squad for the crucial derby encounter at Parkhead tomorrow afternoon.

The influential Japanese midfielder has played a mere 13 minutes of the last two games – his brief appearance in the 3-1 win over Hibs almost three weeks ago.

There’s was no show in the squad for the 2-0 victory over Ross County in Dingwall on Sunday and the talk in the lead-up to the duel with Michael Beale’s side has been all about Hatate’s race to be fit for a confrontation that can see the champions go TWELVE points ahead with seven matches to play.

AGONY…Reo Hatate can’t disguise his frustration as his game against Hibs at Parkhead on March 18 comes to an end after only 13 minutes.

Postecoglou was forced to wait until the penultimate Premiership outing of last season – the 1-1 draw with Dundee United at Tannadice on May 11 – before the championship tussle was settled.

With the pressure off, his team brought down the curtain in glorious style three days later as they romped to a 6-0 landslide over Motherwell in the sun-kissed east end of Glasgow.

For obvious reasons, the Greek-Australian would prefer to have the crown done and dusted as swiftly as possible and a win in the third league meeting between the Glasgow sides would go a long way to achieving that target.

No-one is talking about the treble within the walls of Celtic Park, but the coveted silverware clean sweep is now tantalisingly close for Postecoglou and his players.

IN THE WARS…Reo Hatate displays his usual determination in a duel with Motherwell’s Stephen O’Donnell.

There is the Scottish Cup semi-final meeting with the Govan club looming on Sunday April 30 and victory in that Hampden collision would set up the Hoops for a Final date with either Championship club Inverness Caley Thistle or third-tier Falkirk on June 3.

Postecoglou will not risk Hatate tomorrow if he has a solitary doubt about his player’s fitness levels, a point made by Chris Sutton, as CQN reported earlier this week.

The 57-year-old Celtic manager has been around the block enough times to weigh up which of this month’s two contests against the Ibrox outfit are the most important and will act accordingly.

Skipper Callum McGregor offered an update on his team-mate’s battle against injury when he was asked if Hatate had a chance of playing tomorrow.

The 29-year-old Scotland international, speaking to the Scottish Sun, answered: “Maybe. He’s been touch and go all week.

“The fixture is a bit different and sometimes you can get through the pain barrier if you can.

“But if there’s an issue you don’t want to be taking crazy risks, as there’s a good bit of the season to go, as well. You have to find the balance.

HAMPDEN GLORY BHOYS…Reo Hatate and Kyogo Furuhashi celebrate the striker’s second goal in the League Cup Final win over Michael Beale’s Ibrox side in February. Daizen Maeda is about to join in.

“You get the adrenaline in these big games of consequence. You feel on top of the world and it’s only after the game you start to think: ‘Oh, that’s sore’.

“This is why the boss wants a strong squad. When things like this happen, guys come into the team and we don’t notice a drop off in quality or intensity.”

The problem over Aaron Mooy, who has missed the last two games, has been dispelled as he trained at Lennoxtown yesterday and Postecoglou also has Matt O’Riley, Tomoki Iwata, David Turnbull as well as McGregor in contention for places in the team’s engine room.

Tomorrow could be another day for Hatate to rest and recuperate and all will be revealed when the manager names his squad for another massive occasion at sold-out Parkhead with 60,000 Celtic fans ready to play their part in the determined push for the team’s eleventh flag in 12 years.

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