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Pragmatism must prevail for Celtic

THE tall figure slumps in a chair in a wood-panelled room festooned with the baubles of a glorious past.

"Give me the pen," he orders in his heavily accented English. "I will sign."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic thus fulfils his lifetime ambition and joins the Scottish champions in the boardroom at Parkhead.

"Celtic is a club with a big tradition and a place any top player would want to end their career," he says. Or at least he said it in an interview published in a tabloid and subsequently used as a tasty opener for a radio interview with Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager.

The interview was entertaining and the signing scenario is fanciful but the club faces the reality of a transfer window that presents specific challenges that do not include the option of signing a sporting superstar.

The landscape for Celtic is clear, if somewhat arid in terms of dwindling revenue streams. The road forward, though, is pitted with difficulties.

First, Celtic have the money to improve the squad and are willing to spend it. This may draw the sceptical or even cynical comment, but it is true. Its validity can be proved by the observation that January is Celtic's pre-season and that investment now is needed so that the qualifying campaign for the Champions League can be negotiated without a mass recourse at Parkhead to the tranquilliser bottle.

The most difficult part of Celtic's season is played out in July and August. They need to be ready for that, making a bedding in period for signings a crucial part of any transfer strategy.

Unfortunately for Celtic, the January window offers limited pickings. One can pick up a Kris Commons under special circumstances but normally this is a window where clubs are only keen to offload the under-achievers or those who will leave in the summer under freedom of contract.

The latter scenario leaves Celtic with a dilemma with players such as Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras. Do they push their salary offer higher to keep them or do they make it clear they want them to leave now so that a transfer fee, however reduced, can be accepted? The truth, of course, is that the club will be open to both scenarios. There must be pragmatism in January.

There also, too, has to be an acceptance of just where Celtic are and what transfer ambitions can be realised.

The clamour is for a top-class striker. But "top-class" is a term that can cover a variety of options. The evidence is that Celtic will again have to trawl for promise rather than buy the best.

Celtic have rightfully been praised for buying outstanding midfielders at a bargain price - Victor Wanyama sold on to Southampton for £12m being the best example - and the club has also secured an excellent prospect in the central defender Virgil van Dijk who can be parlayed for up to four times his transfer fee from Groningen of £2.6m.

Mikael Lustig and Adam Matthews, both enterprising full-backs, are other good examples of the success of the Celtic model. But this policy stalls when it comes to strikers. First, people who score goals do not fly under the radar. They are emblazoned across two-page spreads in type normally reserved for the demise of a monarch. Second, the regular goal scorers that Celtic can afford are reluctant to come to a Scottish league that is to them a backwater when compared even to the Championship in England.

For example, Charlie Austin, 24, fitted the Celtic bill when at Burnley. He chose Queens Park Rangers where he joined a striking set-up that includes Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, both England internationalists. Austin will be on £30,000 a week.

Then there is Jordan Rhodes. Now 23, the striker was scouted regularly by Celtic but he chose Blackburn Rovers for his £8m move. The Scottish internationalist is on Barclays Premier League wages with reliable estimates pitching his annual salary somewhere north of £2.5m a year.

This is the answer to those who shout that Celtic, instead of buying a job lot of £2m strikers, should simply lump the cash for the Banguras, Rasmussens, Baldes, Mikus, Lassads and Pukkis and invest in the £8m-£10m bracket. The sticking point is that not only would the wage structure at Parkhead be bust but, more pertinently, these strikers do not want to come.

Celtic did find a gem in Gary Hooper, a fine footballer with a poacher's sly intelligence. But his stock has risen on his departure. The simple facts about the Englishman are that he is at Norwich City, rather than one of the top English clubs, and that he scored twice in eight group and round-of-16 matches in the Champions League last season.

Of course, Celtic would welcome him back with a marching band and a lay carpet of rose petals to ease the miles from East Anglia. Instead, they must find a striker who can help them qualify for the Champions League group stages and then keep them competitive in Europe.

That is, they must find a top-class striker who is willing to play in a mediocre league and who has not been seduced by a club in Spain, England, Italy, Germany or France. He must be willing to work for a top salary of £25,000 a week, though he could earn that at a Championship club with the Premier League in their sights.

It is an extraordinarily difficult task. Celtic need not only to have good scouts but to strike it lucky in finding a gem with a hankering for Scotland and an ambition, nay a irrepressible desire to show his worth in the Champions League.

Anyone have a number for Zlatan?

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