Petrov primed to move out of Larsson's shadow

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The Independent Football

Juninho may have inherited Henrik Larsson's No 7 shirt at Celtic, but the torch was passed on to Stilian Petrov. In the absence of the iconic Swede, it will be Petrov who acts as the guiding light in a season that is now rich with possibilities.

The Bulgarian speaks with a rich Glasgow accent that betrays his five years at Parkhead. He was given a crash course in the Old Firm after a disastrous first season, and now understands this fierce rivalry better than anyone.

Who better to tutor Juninho about the assault on his senses that awaits this afternoon? Larsson picked out Petrov as the man to take over his influential role when he departed in May after seven years. Not as a striker, but as a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room.

Yet Petrov's contribution on the big occasions - he is a frequent scorer in European ties and derbies - could mean that even though Rangers have finally seen the last of Larsson, their troubles may not be over.

Juninho may be kept on the bench today. Martin O'Neill is unwilling to throw the little Brazilian in at the deep end, as Petrov was by John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish in 1999 after Celtic paid £2 million for the teenager.

"It was depressing," Petrov recalled. "We lost three games to Rangers, including one 4-0, and drew only one in my first season here.

"It was a hard task, especially because it was my first season. You want to do well, but to not even win one of the four Old Firm games was embarrassing. But things change."

In those days, Petrov could hardly speak any English, and was surrounded by a divided dressing-room in which many players - such as Mark Viduka, for example - had their own agenda. The only man who could change the situation was Larsson, but he was on crutches after a dreadful leg-break. A couple of years later, when Petrov broke his own leg, Larsson helped him through it - the bond was forged.

The dressing room that Juninho walked into this week has an entirely different mood. The Champions' League - Celtic will be against Milan and Larsson's Barc-elona in the first group stage - is just around the corner, and O'Neill's side are focused on proving they can be just as successful without their prolific talisman. Victory in the first Old Firm game of the season would help their quest to win a fourth Scottish Premier League title in five seasons.

O'Neill was desperate to play down comparisons between Larsson and Juninho. "I know I gave him the No 7 shirt and comparisons are inevitable, but I see Juninho more as a goalmaker, not a scorer," said the Celtic manager.

Juninho's tricky running will augment Petrov's more direct style, and the 24-year-old could not be happier with Celtic's latest recruit. "When you see Juninho in training, you know that he has something special," reflected Petrov. "He will be important for us, especially in big games with Rangers or in Europe. He has been a great player in the English Premiership, and although football here is quicker, I think he will settle in Scotland.

"I actually played against him in my first European tie for CSKA Sofia when I was a kid and he was at Atletico Madrid. It was great to see such a world-class player with such natural ability.

"I was man-marking him in Madrid and we lost 1-0; he scored with a penalty. It was my first big game, but even now I have not come across someone who is so hard to close down. Juninho coming here has given us all a lift."

O'Neill can help Juninho to feel wanted again, after he was pushed to the fringes by Middlesbrough's summer shopping spree, just as Stan Collymore was at Leicester City and John Hartson has been at Parkhead.

"I feel like 18, not 31," said Juninho. "I hope the Celtic fans take me to their hearts and I want to bring success to this club. I did not know that the No 7 shirt belonged to Larsson, the only thing that mattered was that the manager wanted me."