Celtic’s winner at Hampden yesterday may prove something of a collector’s item. Playing Leigh Griffiths alongside Moussa Dembele was not something his personnel in other areas really allowed for, Brendan Rodgers stated this week. Yesterday, though, it took the combined efforts of the strike pair to end Rangers’ resistance’ in the League Cup semi-final.
It rather does a disservice to the back-heel swish with which the Frenchman swept the ball behind him and into Matt Gilks’ net to say that this 87th-minute clincher was “laid on a plate for him”, as Griffiths said afterwards.
Yet, there is no denying that the accuracy of cross from the right from the Scotland international was a tasty morsel to serve up to the player leaving him with meagre rations of game time because he is gobbling up the goals.
That is what Griffiths did last season in bagging 40 of them. It meant he established records and became the most talked-about performer in the Scottish game. Dembele has taken over that mantle as well as the 26-year-old’s place in the team.
His hat-trick in last month’s league derby was the first witnessed in the fixture for half a century. His strike yesterday made him the first Celtic player of the modern era to net four goals against Rangers in his first season, moving past Chris Sutton, who netted three times in the derby in 2000-01.
The 20-year-old seemed tickled at the suggestion Rangers must already be sick of the sight of him. He doesn’t intend to go easy on their stomachs after racing on to the 14-goal mark only 15 starts and five substitute appearances into a Celtic career brought into being by the outrageously inexpensive £500,000 fee that the club paid Fulham for him.
“In the big games you have to make sure you are ready,” he said. “In the two games against them, that’s what I have done. Hopefully that can continue in the next games against Rangers. Scoring one goal or three…it doesn’t make a difference to me. The only thing that matters is we win the game. I wouldn’t say this was any better or worse than the last game. It was just different. This is the beginning for me at Celtic. There is a lot more to come as I have only been here for three months. I train hard every day, I give my all on the pitch.”
Yesterday Dembele also gave his all off the pitch, hurling himself into the Celtic support at the corner of the stadium. It earned a booking he said was “worth it” and, for his ability to improvise in an around the penalty box as he did to send his team into what will be his first final, he is worth his weight in gold to Rodgers’ team.
“It was just instinct. When Leigh crossed the ball, I didn’t have time to think. I just did my best to score and I was so happy when it went in. It would mean a lot to win the trophy because it would be my first medal at this level. That’s why I came to Celtic – to win things and play in big games like this.”
His arrival has made Griffiths reflect ruefully that his status has regressed to that of bit-part player as it was in the early stages of Ronny Deila’s tenure two years ago. Rodgers said the other day that, with Griffiths’ game not served by his playing wide, he couldn’t accommodate him and Dembele without upsetting the team’s chemistry.
Yesterday, with Tom Rogic already withdrawn, Griffiths’ introduction in the 72nd minute allowed Rodgers to drop Dembele into the ‘hole’ that is normally occupied by the big Australian.
Griffiths had no doubts about the importance of this rejig. “The manager just asked me to go on and create something for the team,” he said. “That’s what I’m all about, trying to score goals or create chances for the boys. The only way I can stake a claim for a place in the team is by going on and showing the manager what I can do and keep working hard in training. There are a lot of games coming up, so there will be opportunities to play – it’s up to me to take them. Today, I’ve showed I can bide my time and be patient. I showed I can come on and change games.”
Yet Griffiths doesn’t deny that his current occupation of the bench is a source of anguish. “Of course it’s frustrating,” he said.
“If you ask any player if they are happy to be on the bench and they say yes, then they are lying through their back teeth. Every player wants to play.
“The manager has a selection headache here because he has so many good players that boys can’t even get in the squad now. I’m fortunate to be in the squad but I haven’t got that starting XI jersey yet. When I do, I need to grab it with both hands.” Just like Dembele did, indeed.