Leigh Griffiths looks priceless as Celtic chase Euro millions

Leigh Griffiths capitalises on some slack defending by Jose Martinez to score Celtics equalising goal against Barcelona in Saturdays 3-1 defeat in Dublin. Picture: SNS Group
Leigh Griffiths capitalises on some slack defending by Jose Martinez to score Celtics equalising goal against Barcelona in Saturdays 3-1 defeat in Dublin. Picture: SNS Group
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The final whistle was long blown, the pitch emptied of players, but a pocket of Celtic fans were still cheering in the Lansdowne Road end of Aviva Stadium.

Walking toward them and soon to leap a barrier to join them was Leigh Griffiths, the scorer of Celtic’s only goal in the 3-1 defeat by Barcelona in Saturday’s near sell-out International Champions Cup game in Dublin.

Leigh Griffiths is a terrific striker. There is no doubt about that from the short time I have worked with him. He’s got a natural instinct. Whatever level he plays, he’ll get goals

Brendan Rodgers

The former Hibs hitman is the antidote to Efe Ambrose as far as the Celtic fans are concerned; a man who can make goals – at the right end of the pitch, a player who can get them out of trouble, rather than into it, and a striker who may earn them millions in Europe, not cost them.

Brendan Rodgers worked with both No 9s that took to the field on Saturday, and while Griffiths is not in the same class as Luis Suarez, the coach spoke with great admiration of his new striker, a player with two goals in his last two Champions League appearances.

His first-half goal may have been assisted by an awful first touch by Jose Martinez, the Barcelona B defender, but he had put himself in the position to capitalise on it by pressing as high as the opposition penalty spot.

“Leigh is very important, he’s got good rhythm in pre-season, this is our tenth game and they haven’t been easy games but he’s really getting fitter and stronger,” Rodgers said after the defeat.

“I’ve said to him that if you get yourself up on goalkeepers, you’ll get yourself five goals a season through that pressure. And he got his reward for that today. He’s there to punish. He’s a terrific striker. There is no doubt about that from the short time I have worked with him. He’s got a natural instinct.

“Whatever level he plays, he’ll get goals. It’s been nice for him to get a goal in the qualifiers. I don’t think he’d scored in Europe before. So he’s starting to find his feet. That was a good instinctive finish.”

Griffiths’ strike aside, Celtic created few other clear chances bar the jinking runs of Patrick Roberts, who was the star of a first half in which Leo Messi played the full 45 minutes.

Luis Enrique, the Barcelona manager, was short on words after the game, but did manage to heap praise on the young Celtic winger. “He’s a great player,” he said. “He has a great future in the team, great quality and he can bring good things to this team.”

Roberts almost opened the scoring 13 seconds into the game, with Celtic’s high-pressing game once more paying dividends.

Jeremy Mathieu, the France defender, decided against chasing a 50/50 with the Manchester City loanee, and Roberts cut inside and curled a shot just inches wide.

He had the crowd on their feet moments later, going on a slalom run through the blaugrana defence, only to push his shot wide once more.

If a player was to sum up where Rodgers sees his team right now, it may be the close-but-not-close-enough displays of Roberts.

“We’re still a long way away from where I want to be, but what I can’t deny is the mental fitness of the players, and physically how they’re pushing themselves,” said Rodgers. “We showed some good moments in the game in terms of where we want to be, but the reality is other players will be coming in, and obviously we’ll have more work on the training ground.”

Defence is the area most clearly in need of strengthening, although there will be an element of natural improvement by the eventual return to fitness of Erik Sviatchenko, Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Simunovic as well as the availability of new signing Kolo Toure.

Kristoffer Ajer, perhaps Ronnie Deila’s farewell gift to Celtic, also showed glimpses in the second half of why many in Norway believe he will be best utilised in central defence.

Rodgers could have done with him in the first half.

Arda Turan’s glorious curling shot might have been too well placed for Craig Gordon to stop, but some midfield pressure could have denied him, while Ambrose’s own goal needs no further dissection, bar the admission by Rodgers that communication between the defender and Gordon might have been better.

Munir El Haddadi’s tap-in gave Celtic’s defence another taste of what may lay ahead if they break through to the Champions League group stage, not that it will deter Rodgers from aiming to get there.

“For some of the young players involved for the first time against quality like that, it’s a good education,” he said.

“But this is what we all strive for, the supporters, the staff, it’s where we want to be. [The Champions League] is the elite of European football, and Scottish football is better if we have that representation in there.

“For us, we’re going to give it absolutely everything. That’s been the message from day one, the lads have been absolutely superb, we’ve a lot of work to do, it’ll certainly never be perfect, but you can see they’re pushing, they’re pressing, they’re working. If we find those final moments of quality that will take us through.”