Celtic’s Nir Bitton eager to ease loss of stars

Nir Bitton's nine goals from midfield are one reason he is a regular name on the Celtic teamsheet. Picture: SNS
Nir Bitton's nine goals from midfield are one reason he is a regular name on the Celtic teamsheet. Picture: SNS
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With a very creditable nine goals in 27 appearances to date this season, including two in his last couple of games, Nir Bitton is doing his best to make up for those occasions when Celtic cannot rely on Leigh Griffiths.

Goalscoring is not the reason why the holding midfielder is one of the first names on Ronny Deila’s teamsheet but it does no harm if he can show such aptitude in that area as well. While Bitton’s well-taken goal against Hearts on Sunday helped earn a point for his side, it is hard to ignore Celtic’s toothless nature when they are denied Griffiths’ services.

It is still uncertain whether the striker, who has a stiff calf, will be available for tomorrow night’s clash at Dundee, one of his former clubs. Bitton does not believe Celtic are less threatening when Griffiths is absent from the side. But there is definitely something missing when he does not play.

“We always miss the guys who don’t play,” accepted Bitton. “Of course, Leigh is an amazing striker, a great player. But we have a great striker playing instead of him now. But it is not about Leigh or any individual, it is about Celtic 
as a team and how we play as a team.”

Even goals in successive games by Bitton have not been enough to ignite Celtic. Without Griffiths, they look denuded. Despite Bitton’s supportive words, Nadir Ciftci is still struggling to find his feet at his new club.

Bitton opened the scoring against both Motherwell and Hearts in the first two games of Celtic’s festive schedule. However, on neither occasion were Celtic able to build on such a promising start.

Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Tynecastle was both a better outcome and performance than their previous game, when Motherwell responded to Bitton’s deflected strike just after half-time by scoring twice without reply. Now the Israel midfielder hopes Celtic can maintain the steady improvement by posting a win at Dens, where Celtic have not lost since the late 1980s.

“We want to win at Dundee, which is exactly what we wanted to do against Hearts,” he said. “We all need to understand that this is going to be a difficult game for us and we need to be prepared for it.”

This deep desire for three points is not only a matter of personal pride. Although second-placed Aberdeen have not managed to take complete advantage of Celtic’s recent slump, they have narrowed the gap to just a point, albeit Deila’s side have a game in hand.

Had they only managed to see out a few minutes of injury time at Tynecastle, Celtic would be three points clear. As it stands, their lead looks precarious.

“Should we be further ahead?” pondered Bitton. “If we look at ourselves, we have to admit that we have dropped a lot of points along the way. These kinds of things do happen and we have to be at our best in every game.

“I think we need to play [against Dundee] like we did on Sunday at Tynecastle. I think everyone was up for the fight and fought for one another. When we want to win, we start from there. Everyone knows the quality we have in the team, but we need to fight.”

As he prepares to play his last game of the year, Bitton, who recently signed a contract extension to 2020, has enjoyed a productive 2015. “For me, it has been a good year,” he said. “I established myself in the team, I play good football. But I can’t play good football if the team is not playing well. All the credit goes to my team-mates and the staff.

“I always want to continue to improve myself. Celtic is the best stage for me.

“Before I played in Israel so here is not the same. There is a lot more pressure and expectation at Celtic. I think the Scottish league is better than the Israeli league, maybe not in technique, but the tempo and pace is better.”

As for his goalscoring form, this is just a welcome additional feature of his game. He knows this is not his chief function. “I have always said that a goal is just a bonus for me,” he said. “The most important thing is to win the games and to help my team-mates to be the best players. Sometimes I score but, as I said, they are a bonus.”

But Bitton has no intention of shying away from the responsibility that falls on his shoulders when Scott Brown is absent. The skipper is out until the new year due to injury and Bitton acknowledged this means there is an extra onus on him.

But he is committed to excelling even when Brown is playing. Even next to the industrious Brown, the elegant Bitton cannot fail to catch the eye. “I want to take responsibility in every game, even if Scott is there,” he said. “He has been missing for a while and everyone knows how important Scott is to Celtic. I just want to step up in every game.”