FRIENDLIES, aside from the obvious advantages of player fitness and match sharpness, can be useful exercises for managers wanting to learn more about their squad. As far as Celtic and Ronny Deila go, the big question going into Saturday’s encounter with Rennes centred around which striker will be first choice in Wednesday’s crucial Champions League first-leg qualifier against Qarabag.
With the opening goal against the French visitors in a 2-0 win to add to his terrific recent record, it seems Leigh Griffiths may just have provided his manager with the answer he was looking for.
Having netted a hat-trick in last week’s friendly match win over Eibar, the Scottish striker would have felt harshly omitted from the starting XI in last Wednesday’s decisive first-round, second-leg victory over Stjarnan, a feeling vindicated when Griffiths rose from the bench to score Celtic’s third in a 4-1 win.
With something to prove, he opened the scoring against Rennes with a vintage Griffiths goal. Drifting out to the right-wing he was found streaking in behind the full-back by a perfectly weighted pass from Nir Bitton. Instead of hitting the by-line, Griffiths squared up his marker, shifted the ball back onto his favoured left foot as he advanced into the penalty area, and lashed it home at the near post.
It was a confident goal from a player who appears to be at the top of his game, having netted five goals in his past three matches. While he obviously wouldn’t reveal which player is in pole position to start up front on Wednesday, Deila did admit that it would be difficult to ignore Griffiths on current form.
Asked whether Griffiths would start, Deila said: “There’s a chance, of course. He’s scoring in every game he plays so it’ll be hard not to start him. Again it’s a little bit about the opponent and a little bit of how the match is going to be. But he shows that he’s in good shape. Leigh answers me in every game he plays whether it’s from the start or from the bench.
Leigh’s scoring in every game he plays so it’ll be hard not to start him. He shows he’s in good shapeRonny Deila
“We have to understand that it is the team that is important. That we, Celtic Football Club, win these games. Of course people will think about themselves as well, but Leigh’s always had a great attitude whether he starts or not. If he sits on the bench then he comes on and gives a 100 per cent and in the end that will pay off for him. Today he started the game and he did well, so I’m happy with the way Leigh is performing and the way he’s developing.”
Griffiths’ goal gave Celtic an advantage they doubled just nine minutes later. Gary Mackay-Steven was put clean through by a sliding through ball by Stuart Armstrong and the winger kept his composure to finish into the bottom corner, completing the scoring in the 22nd minute.
The game chalked up another tally mark for Griffiths in his workplace battle with Nadir Ciftci. The latter was substituted on at the half-time interval along with eight other team-mates, but aside from a brief flurry shortly after the restart, and a late chance for Anthony Stokes, Celtic never looked much like adding to their advantage.
The second-half team included a lot of reserve players – including 21-year-old keeper Joe Fasan who made two terrific stops from Swedish international striker Ola Toivonen to preserve a clean sheet – so it was little surprise Ciftci failed to make the kind of impact Griffiths had in the first half. However, it still means Ciftci has started his Celtic career by going five games without a goal, though only two of them have been competitive matches.
Few people around the club will know him better than Mackay-Steven as he, along with Armstrong, played alongside Ciftci for 18 months at Tannadice before their former club-mate followed them to Celtic Park. He’s not worried in the slightest by the lack of goals, correctly pointing to the other aspects of Ciftci’s game that make him such a stand-out talent and one worthy of the £1.5 million price tag.
“He’ll get a goal one of these games, I don’t think he’s too worried that he’s not scored a goal yet,” said Mackay-Steven. “He’s more than just goals, though. He’s got great link-up play, he can play in different positions, he can play off the strikers, he’s already shown all those qualities.
“In training everyone can see how good a player he is and the manager knows how good a player he is. He’s not been at the club long, he’s still in pre-season, if you like, still getting up to speed, but he’s slotted right into the dressing room as a person. It’ll only be a matter of time before he really starts to show what he can do on the park. We’re all delighted he’s here.”