Baldé's fitness fight compounds defensive dilemma for Celtic

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The Independent Online

Bobo Balde is the latest of Martin O'Neill's injury doubts in the build-up to tonight's crucial Champions' League Group F tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, after the Celtic manager revealed that Joos Valgaeren and Ulrik Laursen are unlikely to figure.

Bobo Balde is the latest of Martin O'Neill's injury doubts in the build-up to tonight's crucial Champions' League Group F tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, after the Celtic manager revealed that Joos Valgaeren and Ulrik Laursen are unlikely to figure.

The muscular Guinean centre-half missed the weekend win over Hearts at Parkhead with a knee injury, but with only Stanislav Varga and Jackie McNamara fit among Celtic's experienced central defenders, O'Neill is desperate for Baldé to declare himself available for the encounter at Donetsk's Central Stadium. He was due to undergo a fitness test late last night. "Joos Valgaeren and Ulrik Laursen would be struggling," O'Neill said. "So we will see how Bobo is."

O'Neill had considered keeping Chris Sutton in defence after his man-of-the-match performance against Hearts at the weekend. But while he believes the Englishman can do a job in defence for a match Celtic can ill-afford to lose, the manager admitted he would favour Sutton reprising his more accustomed attacking role. "I think Chris has obviously shown his versatility to play in a number of positions for us," O'Neill said. "That is good news for us but we will see how Bobo is first of all before making that sort of decision.

"Chris played well at the weekend but I would prefer him further up the field. He will go back there, or at least I hope he will go back there willingly."

Two defeats in two matches - to Barcelona and Milan - have left Celtic level on zero points with the Ukrainians, albeit ahead on goals scored. Defeat in Donetsk would not spell the end of O'Neill's side's chances of taking third place in the group and with it the consolation prize of parachuting into a Uefa Cup spot, but Celtic could wave goodbye to the already remote hopes of progressing from their group.

Luck has not been with Celtic in the Champions' League this season and all O'Neill could do was offer the cautious optimism that is a prerequisite of his job. "Not everybody is fit to play but we will be upbeat because it is a big game for us, as it is for them," he said. "We don't have points on the board yet between us and that will obviously change tomorrow.

"It is a step up from the normal domestic scene - and it's frustrating to be going into a game like this not at full strength.

"That's why the big teams cope because they have such big squads. You do prefer it if all players are available, but we will go into this one fearing nothing.

"Shakhtar are a talented team and have a number of top-quality players playing for them," O'Neill added. "They have so much strength in the side and have spent a lot of money."

Jackie McNamara, the Celtic captain, was candid enough to admit that even if his team-mates produce their best it might not be good enough for victory.

"Shakhtar Donetsk are an unknown quantity with people back home but we have prepared for this," the left-sided midfielder said. "Compared to Barcelona and Milan they are the underdogs the same as us, but they are a very good side.

"We will show them a lot of respect. They were also unlucky against Milan but I didn't see the Barcelona game.

"They are a very dangerous side and will cause a lot of problems. We will have to be at our best to get something," McNamara added.

"This is an important game for us. It's vital we get the three points but they will be hoping to win their home game for the same reason we want a win - to stay in the Champions' League.

"We are going for the points but we cannot lose, because of the Uefa Cup. We are still fighting and hopefully we will get the result," he said.

Celtic are yet to win a match away from home in the Champions' League, and lacking in fit players or not, this is one of their better opportunities to break that duck. More importantly, the Bhoys will need to play like men if they are to remain relevant in Europe's premier competition.

Celtic (4-4-2, probable): Marshall; Agathe, Varga, Baldé, McNamara; Lennon, Petrov, Wallace, Juninho; Sutton, Hartson.

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