A year and a day before last night’s Champions League third qualifying round at Parkhead, Celtic were in a very different part of the world, but on a similar mission. Back then, in order to progress to the play-off round, they had to avoid defeat against Qarabag in Azerbaijan.
It was an evening when nicking a score would have been priceless as they sought an away goal that would have been the means to build on their 1-0 home lead. The striker that Ronny Deila entrusted with that task was Nadir Ciftci. With only one central frontline position available, that meant Leigh Griffiths starting on the bench for an encounter wherein Celtic valiantly ground out a scoreless draw.
The hosting of FC Astana last night was the first occasion in continental competition since then that Celtic have played with one striker, new manager Brendan Rodgers having previously sought to accommodate his first signing Moussa Dembele alongside Griffiths. When he changed his shape to a 4-1-4-1 from the previously favoured 3-5-2, it was never going to exclude the man who netted 40 goals for Celtic last season. Those times have changed.
There is now no debate about Griffiths’ status as Celtic’s most valued attacking weapon. Rodgers said during his pre-match press conference that the striker would be valued at £15 million if he had a “more Latino name”. And Griffiths might be said to have added one more player to his collection of rivals who have required to defer to him.
When he joined Celtic in an £850,000 deal from Wolverhampton in January 2014 he was presented as a reliable goal source domestically but there were doubts about whether he could step up to offer the potency required in Europe. Now he is the go-to man for succeeding where Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde failed before him, and cementing his position to the point where Ciftci and Dembele are support players to him.
Griffiths missed chances last night, but was in and around the danger area to sniff out openings. Twice he darted on to through balls and, after being played in by Stefan Johansen, would have cursed himself when sending a fizzing effort into the side netting.
However, by then he had his goal. Granted, it came from a penalty, but these haven’t always been a forte of Griffiths, just as they proved a curious weak spot of the man whose company he seeks to keep, Henrik Larsson. And when he smashed his spot-kick high into the top corner at the end of the first period, the 25-year-old put himself alongside the Swede in the sense that he is a player who can be trusted on the European stage.
For after netting in Celtic’s previous two qualifiers, last night’s strike marked his seventh goal in his past 11 starts in Europe.
Whatever Celtic’s deficiencies that required an added-time penalty from Dembele to enable Rodgers’ men to go through, Griffiths stands apart as a towering strength.