Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has valued Leigh Griffiths at £15 million and believes Champions League opponents Astana are running scared of the striker ahead of tonight’s third qualifying round, second leg in Glasgow.
The Kazakhstan side were incensed by Griffiths’ off-the-ball clash with their defender Igor Shitov in last week’s 1-1 draw in Astana, insisting he should have been sent off for the incident.
Griffiths was cautioned for the offence and went on to score Celtic’s precious away goal which leaves them in prime position to reach Friday’s play-off round draw.
The 25-year-old, who scored 40 goals for the Scottish champions last season, has already struck twice in the Champions League qualifiers and earned the firm approval of his new manager Rodgers.
“If there was anything really in the incident last week, Leigh would have been red-carded,” said Rodgers.
“He obviously got a yellow card and what events since tell you is how much of a threat Astana see him as. They obviously respect him so much as a player, they maybe wanted to try to get him banned from the game.
“You can only assume that’s why they took the course of action they took, in the hope it might work that way.
“The best players play on the edge. I always think that to be a winner, you need to be on the limit. Leigh plays on the limit. That’s what you want as a coach and a manager.
“If he had a different name – a more Latino name – this guy would be talked about as being worth £15 million, for sure. Luis Suarez played on edge for me at Liverpool and he was alright! What Leigh has shown very quickly in the short time I’ve been here is that he’s another player who has impressed me. I saw the goals he’d scored before, the quality of the finishes, and the technique is top class.
“But what has impressed me more than anything is his tactical capacity. He presses and doesn’t run without thinking. If he continues that it’ll bring his game up another level.”
While Griffiths is certain to lead the line for Celtic tonight, Rodgers again has decisions to make in central defence with Kolo Toure poised to make his debut for the club.
But the 35-year-old, who is behind the rest of his team-mates in terms of match fitness, may have to settle for a substitute’s role in Rodgers’ strategy on this occasion.
“His experience will be vital, whether it is from the start or in another part of the game,” added Rodgers.
“It will depend on what I feel the game needs. I’m happy enough with the other options in terms of what we’ve got [in central defence]. Cohesively we can work well together.
“Kolo could start the game and last it through but it’s also one of those ones when, as a coach, you are thinking it might be that second or final part of the game where you need that experience to close it out.
“He could, for example, play 60 minutes and have to come off. Then you have to put someone less experienced on. So the idea could be to keep him on the sidelines and then, when you need more height in the team to close out the game because they are playing direct, you can put him on.”
Rodgers, who has Stefan Johansen available again as compensation for the loss in midfield of Nir Bitton who damaged ankle ligaments in Saturday’s Dublin friendly against Barcelona, will be guaranteed a minimum of Europa League group stage football this season if Celtic win tonight. But he is solely focused on getting his new club back into the Champions League proper for the first time since 2013.
“That’s our focus,” he said. “As a team, we set our target as the group stage of the Champions League and hopefully nothing will get in the way of that. I haven’t given one second’s thought to the Europa League.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, has reiterated his contentment with his decision to take the Celtic job this summer.
David Moyes, who was also interviewed for the position, stated at his first media conference as Sunderland manager this week that his desire to return to the English Premier League trumped the opportunity at Celtic.
“I knew the positives and negatives to the job,” said Rodgers. “For me, the positives far outweighed anything else at this stage of my career. There was no hesitation for me to come.
“I can see where David is coming from, if he spoke to the club but still felt he wanted to be in the Premier League. For me, I’m different. I’ve got another 15 to 20 years as a coach and I didn’t want it all to be in the Premier League.”