OSCAR Garcia last night emerged as a surprise candidate to replace Neil Lennon as Celtic manager.
The 41-year-old former Barcelona midfielder, who resigned from Brighton and Hove Albion earlier this month after they lost to Derby in a Premier League play-off semi-final, is believed to be keen on a quick return to the technical area and is thought to be high on the short list being compiled by chief executive Peter Lawwell in the wake of Lennon's departure after four years in charge.
Malky Mackay, the former manager of Cardiff City and a one-time player at Parkhead, is understood to be of interest with Owen Coyle also available, having reportedly turned the job at Celtic down in 2010 prior to joining Bolton Wanderers from Burnley.
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Henrik Larsson, who heads the betting along with David Moyes, received high-profile support from Martin O'Neill, one of Celtic's greatest former managers, last night, but the Swede has been sending out mixed messages.
Larsson has stated his commitment to Falkenberg, whom he took over at the start of the year, while confessing that he remains in touch with Celtic and sees himself returning, one day, to the club he served so prolifically as a striker for seven years.
However, Garcia's arrival as one of the lead contenders provides a fresh and exciting avenue to explore as Lawwell consults with Lennon over his successor, having failed in initial negotiations to talk him out of his decision to leave.
In addition to his contacts in Catalonia, his youth, and his commitment to attacking, possession-based football, Garcia rubbed shoulders with his prospective Parkhead paymasters while taking charge of Barcelona's Under-19 team in the NextGen Series against Celtic back in 2011, prior to leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Israeli title in the 2012/ 13 season.
However, the SPFL champions will have to act decisively as Garcia - represented by Pep Guardiola's brother, Pere - has no shortage of admirers. He has been strongly linked with the Southampton post should Mauricio Pochettino accept the vacant Tottenham Hotspur manager's role, and is also thought to be on the radar of West Bromwich Albion, who recently parted company with another Spanish manager, Pepe Mel.
Ironically, Garcia's departure from the south-coast club - he cited a lack of investment and the sale of star players Ashley Barnes to Burnley and Liam Bridcutt to Sunderland in January - has echoes to the situation that led to Lennon's resignation.
Having sneaked into the play-offs with a last-day victory against Nottingham Forest, Garcia stood down after a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Derby. Sources close to Lennon have said that he made his mind up to leave Celtic about 10 days ago and conveyed this to the club's powerbase, including majority shareholder Dermot Desmond, in meetings at the beginning of this week.
Lennon insisted he had no other job lined up and would enjoy
a short holiday before starting media work at the World Cup finals in Brazil. He is expected, however, to provide input on the identity of the man who will follow in his footsteps.
"I feel the time is now right to move on to a new challenge," he said in a club statement.
"I will now assist the club in appointing my successor."
Speaking later to STV, he said: "I've covered all the bases and feel it's a good time to go. It's not a knee-jerk decision . . . it's been going on for a while. The team is in good health."
Larsson, his one-time team-mate, remains at the head of the betting market along with Moyes. O'Neill, now in charge of the Republic of Ireland, believes he must be in with a live chance of being appointed.
"Larsson was just phenomenal, phenomenal,
as a player," stated O'Neill. "He's had a little time as well as a manager in his own country and, if you say they have stopped taking bets on it and that he is a very, very strong favourite, why not? He would be a great fit for Celtic again."
Larsson conducted a number of interviews on his future yesterday and told Swedish reporters that there was no basis to rumours he had
been approached by the Glasgow club. "It is not true," he said. "I understand that is always a job that will be associated with me after my years as a player there. It is obviously nice. Sure, I can see myself as manager of Celtic and going there in the future, but, right now, it's full focus on Falkenberg and the job to remain in Allsvenskan."
However, Larsson later spoke to STV and refused to confirm or deny negotiations with Celtic, creating the distinct impression that he would be open to an approach.
"I can see myself back at Celtic," said Larsson. "Whether it's now or in the future, time will tell. Let me put it this way,
I always have had good contact with the people at Celtic and I continue to have good contact with the club.
"That's all I'm going to say. It's up to you to work out if there's been contact."