Celtic striker Moussa Dembele declared himself “stronger and fitter” after scoring in the club’s 4-0 victory over Ross County – his first appearance following two months sidelined with a hamstring problem.
The 21-year-old was circumspect about the possibility of starting in the derby at Ibrox next Saturday, which will follow Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final away to Dundee.
Dembele, though, acknowledged he had taken care to build himself up to be in contention to feature against Rangers – the city rivals against whom he netted five times across his debut season, with his first appearance against them bringing the first league hat-trick in the fixture for 40 years.
The goal yesterday was Dembele’s first in six months, with the striker’s season ended when he suffered an initial hamstring tear in the domestically unbeaten treble-winners’ Scottish Cup semi-final win over Rangers in April.
“I do feel different,” he said of his rehabilitation that involved a two-week stint at Clairefontaine – “one of the best medical centres in the world” – in his homeland. “I have been away for a few weeks and I have come back stronger and fitter. It is good to finally be back. It has been a long two months for me and I’m happy to be back on the pitch. It has been frustrating, but that happens in the game and you have to stay focused so that you come back even better.”
Dembele’s recent injury travails mean he is taking nothing for granted about the trip to Ibrox next Saturday.
“I do want to play the game but I have to be conscious that I have to go easy,” he said. “When I play I have to give 100 per cent. I will train all week and try to be ready for next week’s game. We will see what happens.”
Brendan Rodgers was also cautious about expecting too much too soon from the club’s prized talent after his hamstring issues, following Dembele’s value soaring to £25 million on the back of a 32-goal streak that made him Celtic’s top scorer across their remarkable campaign.
Rodgers said: “We don’t really need the hamstring going again so we don’t have to force him in. We have a really good squad of players, young Odsonne [Edouard] , Leigh [Griffiths] and others who can play there.
“Moussa and Leigh have an injury history so we don’t really want to push it unless we have to. We’ll see what the reaction is after this.”