NIR BITTON answered Neil Lennon’s SOS to play as a makeshift central defender in the 3-1 win over FK Sarajevo in the opening Champions League qualifier in Bosnia on Tuesday night.
The Celtic boss admitted he is looking for a huge contribution this time out from the versatile Israeli, but revealed it is NOT likely to be at centre-half.
Lennon praised the comeback Bhoy, returning to the starting line-up for a rare appearance after almost a year out with a complicated knee injury, as the Parkhead men just about cemented their place in the second qualifying round.
The Irishman, who signed Bitton seven years ago in his first stint as Parkhead gaffer, believes the gifted midfielder is well on his way to recovery.
Lennon, speaking to the Evening Times, admitted: “I’m looking for a big season from Nir – no matter what position he plays. He’s had a very good pre-season after a bad injury. It was a concerted period out for him; 10 months to a year.
“He played a few games for me last season, but he still had a little problem with his knee. Nir went away with Israel and has come back looking really good.
“We have now thrown down the challenge to him to step up and make an impact on the team. He has the game to do it. Nir is 27 and he’s a good athlete. There is more to come from him, but I have been very pleased with him so far.”
The Hoops chief added: “Nir can play at the back, but it’s not ideal. Christopher Jullien isn’t up to speed yet and we are still looking to strengthen there. too. Ideally, I’d like Bitton to play in midfield, but he also showed his qualities in defence.
“Kristoffer Ajer was outstanding, but we are looking to bring quality in. It’s not an easy process but we are working away in the background. Right-back is a key area to strengthen.”
Bitton, who came on as a second-half substitute for Jonny Hayes in the 2-1 Scottish Cup Final win over Hearts, made some excellent passes out of defence in Bosnia, but there was one occasion in the second-half when he displayed why he is not a natural defender. He tried to play away a right-wing cross when a recognised centre-half would have hoofed the ball into the stand.
The mishit clearance went straight to a surprised FK Sarajevo player who fluffed his return.
On another day against a higher quality of opposition and Celtic could have been punished.