IT TOOK 20 minutes for Stefan Scepovic to make a notable intervention in last night’s Europa League encounter. It seemed to say everything about how the Serbian striker’s Celtic career has panned out so far that this contact was a clearing defensive header from inside his own team’s penalty area.
And if more were needed to be said, then that seemed to arrive when Scepovic, exhibiting the stiffness of a juniors plodder, headed the way he was facing to send the ball past the post from six yards early in the second period. A glorious opportunity, it came only seconds after he had failed to find the vital touch when the ball flashed across the box and found him unmarked at the back post.
Frankly then, for 72 minutes against Astra last night, it was unimaginable Scepovic would do anything to counter the early impressions of him as a worryingly lumbering, penalty-box static, peripheral figure. Until, that is, he rose majestically to meet an Anthony Stokes free-kick, towering above all the black shirts around him to thud a header high into the visitors’ net.
Scepovic will hope this first goal in Celtic colours proves the turning point. Goodness knows, the forward has needed one. Indeed, seven weeks on from the arrival of the 24-year-old in a deal that netted Spanish Second Division side Sporting Gijon £2.3 million, it is easy to forget the significance placed on his capture.
Celtic were willing to endure the embarrassment of Scepovic – or his representatives – playing them off against Getafe because they so valued what he could offer. Here was the target man that manager Ronny Deila said could be so “important” through being so “different” from all the other forwards he had at the club. What will delight Deila is in that first scoring moment, Scepovic illustrated his point. Celtic haven’t had a front player with a genuine aerial threat from a central striker since Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink two managers and half a decade ago.
Of course, they have had the enigma that was Georgios Samaras since then. And Scepovic’s opener that allowed Celtic, eventually, to tough out a 2-1 win that gives them every chance of qualifying for the knock-out phase of the Europa League had shades of those net-bulging moments Samaras conjured up to take the club into the last 16 of the Champions League two seasons ago.
Scepovic had arrived in Scotland as a supposed reluctant recruit. In the lead-up to the transfer window closing, Celtic were told that the player had decided to go to Getafe instead of making good on an agreement to move to Glasgow, before the situation turned 180 degrees when Getafe couldn’t close a deal.
Last night he enjoyed that rarity in the Group D confrontation against Astra: a start. As a consequence of the loan-signing of Manchester City striker John Guidetti, the supposed Serbian game-changer has become a game stranger. This was only his third start for his new club, and his first for more than a month. Enjoyed is a misnomer, mind. What he did for more than an hour was endured it. In common with his team-mates, he turned in a display for those 60 minutes that was desperate, and desperately short of what was required. At least they found something in the last half hour to get away with what had come before.
Scepovic joined Celtic boasting a one-in-two strike rate across the past couple of years, with 23 goals the product of his 41 appearances in Spain, this form following profitable, if brief, periods, with Israeli side Ashod and Partizan Belgrade in his homeland. To watch Scepovic in the past two months is to have been left wondering how he was ever a prolific frontman. His early struggles Deila attributed to the fact he had an abridged pre-season in which he was denied game-time because Gijon did not want to risk injury to a player they were about to make a couple of million on. That excuse cannot now have relevance with the season three months old.
Until Scepovic struck, his name was being muttered in dark tones alongside such as Miku, Lassad, Mo Bangura, Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde. At least Scepovic can say that, unlike this quintet, he has bagged a vital goal in a vital European group game. It’s hardly the be all and end all, but it is is a start for him. And my, how the player needed a start.