Juninho rejects Celtic to fight for Boro place

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The Independent Football

Juninho and Allan Johnston could have staged a Riverside reunion at Rugby Park today, but while one has decided against - for the time being - cutting his ties with Middlesbrough, the other has succumbed to the misfortune that plagued his time on Teeside.

Martin O'Neill has been forced to shelve his interest in bringing Juninho to Celtic, after the Brazil player decided to stay at Boro and fight for his place in the wake of the arrival of new recruits. There is, however, no guarantee he would find it any easier with the Scottish champions.

Celtic travel to Kilmarnock today, the ground on which they wrapped up the Scottish Premier League title last April, with the first-choice strike pairing of Chris Sutton and John Hartson ready to take over from new signing Henri Camara and youngster Craig Beattie. Both deputised for the robust pair last Tuesday in the 2-0 friendly victory over Tottenham Hotspur, and scored.

However, O'Neill knows only too well that a plethora of fit strikers can soon turn into a dearth. Last spring, he was down to just one fit striker, the departed Henrik Larsson, after a dreadful spate of injuries robbed him of Sutton, Hartson and Shaun Maloney. The manager also has one eye on the impending Champions' League assignment, which is why he may not give up on Juninho just yet.

"We do need to strengthen the squad," he said yesterday, pointing to the departures of Larsson, Johan Mjallby and Liam Miller. "We are making progress on that front but I don't want to rush out and say we're signing someone and then disappoint everyone if it does not come off."

Juninho's agent, Jonathan Hassell, left the door open for a move to Parkhead. "It is a wrench for Juninho to leave Boro and he wants to fight for his place. He was flattered that a club as big as Celtic wanted him. Circumstances can change and if they did, I would pick up the phone to Martin."

Johnston's time at Middlesbrough was ruined by injuries, just as it was at Rangers. The Scotland international is trying to rebuild his career at Kilmarnock under Jim Jefferies, the man who gave him his first chance at Hearts a decade ago. However, no sooner had the ink dried on a three-year contract in midweek, than Johnston revealed he could not face Celtic because of an injury.

Alex Rae will try to rise above the bad publicity that has dogged him since his alleged violent conduct in Rangers' 2-1 defeat by CSKA Moscow in midweek in the Champions' League qualifier caught the eye of Uefa, who may ban the fiery midfielder on Monday. Alex McLeish has defended Rae but the manager himself will need some allies if his team fails to beat Livingston at Ibrox today.

The Hearts board can expect a storm of protest from their fans during the game with Aberdeen today following the revelation, via a stock exchange announcement on Thursday, that they have all but completed the sale of their ground, Tynecastle, to wipe out the club's £18m debt.

The most intriguing contest could turn out to be the derby tomorrow between Dundee United and Dundee at Tannadice.

But all eyes will be on Pittodrie, where Inverness Caledonian Thistle seek a maiden SPL win in their rented home against Dunfermline Athletic. "I thought the criticism we got after losing at Livingston last week was over the top," said captain Stuart Golabek.