THE return of Reo Hatate can act as the springboard for Celtic as they gear up for a potential 10-game cresecendo in the pursuit of a league and Cup double.

The Japanese playmaker has made only 13 appearances in an injury-ravaged campaign and has played for only 20 minutes this year – a cameo in the 2-0 win over St Mirren in Paisley on January 2 – as the champions have toiled to hit a consistent stride.

The cause of Brendan Rodgers’ side has been further hindered with inspirational captain Callum McGregor’s fitness issues which have highlighted his worth to a fully-functioning and fired-up Hoops line-up.

Former Parkhead goalscoring great Chris Sutton believes his old club could go into cruise control if the two influential middle-of-the-park operators can overcome their injury setbacks in the crucial run-in.

GAME OVER…Reo Hatate can’t disguise his frustration as he is forced off after seven minutes in the 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid in October. 

Rodgers’ men have eight Pemiership encounters to play and restart their bid against Livingston in West Lothian a week tomorrow and they face Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final on Saturday April 20.

A victory over the Pittodrie outfit would give Celtic the ideal opportunity to bring down the curtain on a rollercoaster crusade with the soccer showpiece scheduled for Hampden on the iconic date of May 25.

Sizing up the situation, Sutton said: “Reo Hatate and Callum McGregor are the two best midfielders in Scotland. If Brendan Rodgers can have them both back fit and firing for the run-in, it’ll be a monumental boost for the defending champions at a perfect time.

“Let’s face it, Hatate has endured a horrendous season. He was my Player of the Year last term with his fabulous talent and ability to make things happen with his excellence.

“It puzzled me at the beginning of the season when Rodgers left him on the sidelines in favour of David Turnbull.

“As I said at the time, it had to be an issue with something as regards fitness or his mindset because, with the greatest of respect, there is no way on earth that Turnbull should have been in any starting line-up ahead of the Japanese based purely on ability.

FOLLOW THE LEADER…Callum McGregor celebrates his goal in Celtic’s 3-1 comeback win over St Johnstone in Perth in December.

“It went downhill from there with that injury on the second weekend of the season at Aberdeen claiming him for another lengthy spell. I stand by the fact that Celtic played their best stuff of the season during the little run in October when Hatate got back to full speed.

“Rodgers had talks with him which seemed to work. He was outstanding against Kilmarnock at home and Hearts away and the performances of the team matched it. He lifted the levels, yet was slammed back onto the sidelines with another injury against Atletico Madrid and we’re barely seen him since.”

Sutton, speaking to the Daily Record, continued: “Hatate’s injury at the Asian Cup was just another headache in a long line of them for Celtic this season and, of course, they will have to be careful with him.

“But that midweek bounce-game appearance is huge as I’ve no doubt his absence has been a big factor in the inconsistency of the side and the up and down fortunes,

“Rodgers has tried various options in the middle of the park without Hatate as McGregor and Matt O’Riley have had to do the heavy lifting. Turnbull was given that first opportunity and the fact he just wasn’t up to it was proven when packed off to Cardiff in January.

“Odin Thiago Holm never got started with the red card against Feyenoord followed by a succession of failed chances when dished out.

“Paulo Bernardo gave some hope that he could fill the gap and there was a period around the festive fixtures when he looked the part.

“However, the Portuguese hasn’t really kicked on since the mid-season break in the way Celtic would have wanted and Tomoki Iwata now has the job. He, too, has looked tidy enough in recent matches and played well against St Johnstone, but holds nowhere near the levels of influence that Hatate possesses.

“Losing McGregor was another boot for Rodgers, especially with the timing of it. Celtic had given away their advantage at the top of the table, yet an opportunity to seize it again arose with a shock Rangers home loss to Motherwell.

“Rodgers and his team had the chance to grab that title initiative back the following day against Hearts at Tynecastle, yet without McGregor, they failed to take it, although, of course, the red card to Yang Hyun-jun and the bizarre VAR calls made during the Gorgie game had an effect on the eventual outcome.”

APPLAUSE…Brendan Rodgers puts his hands together for Callum McGregor in the 2-1 win over Hibs at Easter Road last month.

The one-time England international striker added: “The captain is so valuable and some fans only see his true worth when he’s not in the team. He’s an outstanding footballer and does so much to knit the whole side together.

“He and O’Riley were having to try and do three jobs in the first-half of the season and it had an effect of wear and tear. The Danish international has been left holding the fort, but the opportunity to be reunited with his best sidekicks will put a shot of energy into his play, too.

“The tempo and fluency in Celtic’s play will rocket if Hatate, McGregor are in tandem again.

“Keep Kyogo Furuhashi on form, keep Cameron Carter-Vickers fit and add that midfield trio and Rodgers could go into the final two months with as powerful a selection hand as he’s held all term.

“Potentially, if Celtic can get through the Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen, there are 10 games left in their season.

“Every single one of them promises to be massive and it is going to take big-game players. Having them all his disposal through until the end of May would be perfect timing for him.

“The equation is pretty simple for Celtic. Win all 10 of those remaining games and the Premiership and Scottish Cup double is theirs.

“It’s a big period and it calls for stars who can make it happen. Hatate and McGregor are two who can shine more than any in the country.”

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