O'Neill hopes Lambert will be fit to face Lyon

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The Independent Football

Paul Lambert could make a surprise return to the Celtic first team tonight and the manager, Martin O'Neill, will not rule him out of next week's Champions' League trip to Lyon.

Lambert, the captain of both Celtic and Scotland, has not played since his ankle problems resurfaced in Scotland's Euro 2004 defeat to Germany. However, the former Borussia Dortmund player returned to training recently and is pushing for a place in the starting XI for the CIS Insurance Cup third-round game with Partick at Firhill.

His return is timely with Didier Agathe and Alan Thompson ruled out of next Wednesday's final Champions' League group game against Lyon through injury and suspension respectively. O'Neill has options for the midfield positions but if Lambert can prove his fitness, his experience could be vital as they chase a draw in France.

"Paul Lambert is in the squad and I will give that some consideration," O'Neill said. "If we hadn't had this particular game he might be looking at an under-21 game but the very fact that he is back is a big boost.

"He has had no reaction to the injury, touch wood, and things are going OK. It would be a big ask to go straight back in and stay in the side. But we obviously have those two players [Thompson and Agathe] missing and who knows what might happen?

"We have two games to negotiate - Thursday night's game and Saturday's game [against Livingston] - before we head into the Lyon game. In that sense it is a boost for Paul. He might not be thinking about the Lyon game, but who knows, if we pick up a couple more injuries?"

O'Neill has a busy time ahead and he wants to get the clutch of players nearing the end of their contracts tied up to new deals before next year.

Liam Miller, Johan Mjallby, Stanislav Varga and Jackie McNamara are coming towards the end of their present deals. "If the players did want to, they could sign pre-contracts with other clubs in January," O'Neill said. "But I hope the players we want to keep at the football club would stay."

O'Neill is expected to rest Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton against Partick and is also set to leave out Stilian Petrov and John Hartson as a precautionary measure with both carrying minor knocks.

He will call on his younger players again with the busy week coming up but he still insists that the CIS Insurance Cup is a competition he wants to win.

"I'll definitely make some changes to the side," O'Neill said. "We have a number of games in quick succession but we will still try our hardest.

"We don't want to lose the CIS Cup but obviously the league and the Champions' League games are very important so we have got a number of young and older players involved tomorrow. It will be a mixed sort of side.

"It's not our main priority this week but it will be a major disappointment if we get knocked out of the competition, regardless of who plays and the circumstances."

Partick's caretaker managers, Derek Whyte and Gerry Britton, will hand in formal applications to succeed Gerry Collins after the Celtic game. The pair were handed the reigns on a temporary basis following the sacking of Collins on Sunday.