O'Neill optimistic as Baldé stalls over new Celtic deal

Bobo Balde has yet to respond to Celtic's contract offer, the club's manager, Martin O'Neill, said yesterday.

Bobo Balde has yet to respond to Celtic's contract offer, the club's manager, Martin O'Neill, said yesterday.

O'Neill wants the centre-back to follow John Hartson by committing himself to a further spell with the Scottish champions. Baldé has not so far reacted to the offer and interested clubs are watching developments. But O'Neill said: "He is still considering what has been put to him. I think he would prefer to stay."

Celtic will be boosted by the return of Alan Thompson and Stanislav Varga for today's Premier League game against Motherwell at Parkhead. Thompson and Varga missed the win at Aberdeen last week through suspension and a knee injury respectively, but are back in the squad with Juninho and Stephen McManus likely to make way. Jackie McNamara and Baldé have been carrying minor injuries but will travel, while the midfielder Rocco Quinn joins the squad with Didier Agathe still out through injury.

Elsewhere, Rangers' new signing Sotirios Kyrgiakos will not feature in tomorrow's trip to Aberdeen. The defender, who has joined from Panathinaikos, has returned home before linking up with the club next week. The striker Nacho Novo returns from suspension but Shota Arveladze and Peter Lovenkrands are both still out.

The Rangers manager, Alex McLeish, said that he always raised his game as an Aberdeen player against the Glasgow side and he expects their current crop to provide equally stiff opposition. Trouble often brews on and off the pitch when Rangers visit Aberdeen and McLeish is prepared for a tough battle.

"As a player it was a huge fixture and I believe that Aberdeen players now still treat it as a huge fixture," he said. "They always raise their game. I always raised my game playing against Rangers, but now my focus is purely on Rangers. I see it as another difficult away venue to try to get the three points from. We are in this professional business to be ruthless."

McLeish, 46 yesterday, denied that tomorrow's result would be crucial in the title race, saying: "It won't make or break, but it would make it difficult if we didn't come back with the three points. We know to win any championship we have to go to places like Aberdeen and win."

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