The Celtic forward, who has been heavily linked with a Premier League move and an England call-up, faces a crucial test of his credentials against the Serie A champions
By Chris Myson
In July 2008, Gary Hooper was transfer-listed by Southend United after scoring just four goals in 44 games for the club. Less than five years later, he is preparing to spearhead Celtic's attack in the Champions League knockout stages against Juventus.
It has been a quite remarkable rise for the striker, who saw his impressive form for Scunthorpe after leaving Roots Hall earn himself a move to the SPL giants as one of Neil Lennon's first signings.
The £2.4 million transfer fee continues to look like a real bargain. Ever since he arrived north of the border, Hooper's eye for goal has been impressive and the Englishman became a mainstay of the Bhoys' attack.
|HOOPER'S CELTIC CAREER
|83 (79 starts)
21 (20 starts)
15 (12 starts)
119 (111 starts)
During that time, Celtic's fortunes have improved. From being a side who failed to qualify for the group stages of either continental competition during Hooper's first season in Scotland, they featured in the Europa League in 2011-12 before their exploits in Europe's elite club competition this term.
Still aged just 25, netting 73 times in two-and-a-half-years of consistent goalscoring, combined with exposure to the Champions League, has led to a new surge of interest in the striker.
In the most recent January transfer window, Norwich City had multiple bids rejected by Celtic and Andre Villas-Boas watched him play as Tottenham pondered whether to move for a frontman in the market.
England boss Roy Hodgson has been continuously urged to call him up to the international fold by Lennon and will travel to Scotland to take in the match against Juventus.
With his contract due to expire in the summer of 2014 and months of negotiations with his representatives proving unproductive so far, Hooper has been tipped to leave Glasgow, along with Victor Wanyama, in the summer.
Lennon has since admitted that his side's historic progress in the Champions League was vital in being able to hold on to his stars until at least the end of the season and the club remain hopeful that they can at least persuade the forward to extend his deal.
Celtic in the CL group stage
|Sep 19||Celtic 0-0 Benfica
||Spartak Moscow 2-3 Celtic|
||Barcelona 2-1 Celtic
||Celtic 2-1 Barcelona
||Benfica 2-1 Celtic
||Celtic 2-1 Spartak Moscow
On Tuesday night, though, comes a huge test for Hooper. There is already little doubt that he is a prolific striker capable of doing an excellent job for over half of the sides in England's Premier League, those from upper-mid table down to the lower reaches.
But, despite his success at Celtic to date, he is still yet to prove whether he really possesses the quality to warrant interest from Spurs, a call-up for England and to be considered a Champions League-level striker.
In the Europa League last season, he scored against Rennes and Udinese but failed to find the net in two games against eventual winners Atletico Madrid.
This year, he crucially netted home and away against Spartak Moscow but it was Wanyama and youngster Tony Watt who took the headlines against Barcelona.
In total, he has scored six goals in Europe from 15 appearances, 12 of which were starts, at an average of just under one every two games.
Domestically, tests against tougher opposition are hard to come by, aside from games against Old Firm rivals Rangers. Prior to their relegation to the Third Division, Hooper fared reasonably well against the Gers, scoring five times from 10 appearances, nine of which were starts.
That record in big matches certainly does not suggest he is out of his depth at the highest level but, as yet, he remains relatively untested.
If he is going to make it to the top, we are still waiting for Hooper's true breakout moment - a defining goal or match-winning contribution against a European heavyweight.
He has played twice against Barcelona and now has the opportunity to spearhead his side's formidable challenge to reach the last eight up against a team who dominated Serie A last season without losing a game and comfortably disposed of Chelsea in the group stages.
At Celtic you do not get many opportunities to play against the true elite, the likes of Barca, Juve and Manchester United. If Antonio Conte's side prove too strong for the SPL champions, Hooper will know that it could be his last chance to do so for some time.
That is why this last-16 tie could be so important in deciding the forward's next career move, be that extending his stay at Celtic, moving to a mid-table English club or making a decisive step forward to a top Premier League side and earning international recognition.
Based on the rapid rise that he has enjoyed in his career to date, there is every chance that he can go on to make an impression against Juve and continue his strong progression.
There is no doubt that he still has an awful lot to prove if he wants to be considered a striker capable of succeeding at Champions League and international level but Hooper goes into this tie with everything to gain.