Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers was delighted to see an “emotional” Reo Hatate back on the pitch before the Japan midfielder departs for the Asian Cup.
Hatate made his first appearance in 10 weeks when he came off the bench during Celtic’s 3-0 win over St Mirren.
The 26-year-old’s latest lay-off because of a hamstring injury was his third leg muscle injury of 2023 and he appeared to be in tears as Rodgers embraced him after the final whistle in Paisley.
Hatate will head off to Qatar with Japan and might not be back until February but Rodgers is excited to see the midfielder perform when he returns.
“You could see afterwards he was actually quite emotional to be back out on the pitch again,” the Celtic boss said. “He’s put in so much hard work and he’s a big, big player for us.
“So hopefully he can go away and get some minutes and keep his fitness up because when he comes back he’s going to be huge for us in the second half of the season.”
Paulo Bernardo is likely to remain a key player during Hatate’s absence after making major strides in recent weeks.
The 21-year-old Benfica loan midfielder provided two brilliant assists in Paisley to add to the goals he scored against Rangers and Dundee in the previous two games.
“It is all patience,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes at big clubs there is no patience with young players. You can see him growing and developing.
“When you have young players that is what tends to happen if their attitude is right and their mentality is right.
“He has come in in these last few games and created goals and scored goals and he has put his foot in too. He is tenacious. Absolutely delighted for him. It is now about consistency.
“He’s a great learner, he’s a different type of player, maybe not as dynamic as Hatate, but he’s functional and he learns.
“He knows the runs, he knows the pressing triggers, and he’s developing and improving.”
Celtic will see four players depart for Qatar with Daizen Maeda joining Hatate in the Japan squad and South Korea calling up Yang Hyun-jun and Oh Hyeon-gyu.
However, Kyogo Furuhashi will remain with Celtic after being overlooked by Japan.
“Daizen was originally in the squad and Reo got called up a bit later,” Rodgers said. “But Kyogo has been in and out of the squad so I was relaxed anyway. We had a look at all the numbers and what it might look like.
“But, obviously, if he stays it’s really good news for us. But, for him, I’m sure he would have wanted to play in it.”