Brendan Rodgers: Bitton in central defence is no risk at all
When there is around Â£30 million on the table, long shots are probably best avoided.
But, as Celtic pursue that Champions League group stage bonanza, Brendan Rodgers dismisses any notion he would be playing a dangerous game of chance by deploying Nir Bitton in central defence for the crucial play-off round tie against Astana.
The suitability of the Israeli international midfielder for the role has been called into question, notably by high-profile pundit and former Celtic star Chris Sutton, in the aftermath of his performance against Partick Thistle last Friday night when he was fortunate not to concede a late penalty kick.
Rodgers, who remains without the services of injured duo Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko, has alternative options in the shape of right-back Mikael Lustig, who has been shuttled into central defence before.
The Celtic manager, however, remains comfortable with the notion of Bitton partnering Jozo Simunovic against the Kazakh champions in Glasgow tonight. Rodgers prefers to focus on the positive aspects of Bitton’s adaptability which saw him perform faultlessly at the back when he replaced Sviatchenko during the 1-0 win away to Rosenborg in the previous round.
“If it was a big gamble, I wouldn’t do it,” said Rodgers. “I have taken risks all my life and eight or nine times out of ten, they pay off. For me, this is not a risk. If I am playing against a team who are totally bombarding you with high balls and direct balls and you are away from home, then maybe you think differently. But you also have to think of the level of the game.
“You want to put young players in but you don’t want to hurt them either because there are pressure games and normally little bits of experience can get you through. Ok, it might not be perfect playing Nir there but he has got a good idea of what he is doing, he has got the right profile. He will go and attack it, he will head it and he can play football. I don’t see it as a risk. I will take risks but they will always be calculated. I would never just sit down and say ‘let’s play him in there because he is tall’. There is a certain dynamic to it and he has done it very well.
“Since I’ve been here, all the centre-halves have been questioned and all the midfield players have been questioned at some point, but the facts are simple. We’ve played seven competitive games this season and conceded one goal – and we’ve hardly given away any opportunities. We’re not perfect by any means but I think Nir’s done brilliantly since he’s been in there, in terms of how we work and how we play. He’s gone into a game against Rosenborg away, in a pressure game against a really good side and he’s coped really well with Nicklas Bendtner, a player who on his day is a very good striker.
“Nir gets a wee bit stick for some reason – when he plays in midfield or at the back – but he understands football and a lot of our players over the course of this early part of the season – James Forrest, Tom Rogic and Nir – are all guys who’ve been immense for us because they’ve filled in and done jobs out of position. I have nothing but great admiration for them and how they play. If you’re a midfield player playing centre-half and you make one mistake over a couple of games, I’ll take that.
“It could have been a penalty [on Friday] but on lots of occasions those moments will go for him. You could have a defender in there who doesn’t get back quick enough so there are plusses and minuses. There will always be a risk if you are putting in a midfield player who doesn’t normally play there. You have to think about it and weigh it up and for me, if he needs to play there, he can play there.”
At the other end of the pitch, Celtic’s prospects of achieving a positive result to take into the second leg in Astana next week have been enhanced by the declaration of full fitness by Leigh Griffiths.
Calf problems have restricted his involvement so far this season, a problem for Rodgers accentuated by the concurrent absence of his only other out-and-out striker Moussa Dembele, but the man who scored five priceless goals in the qualifiers for Celtic last year is ready to lead the line tonight.
“My calves were feeling good on Friday but the gaffer has to look at the next two Champions League games and he wants his best players available so he took a precaution by only putting me on as a sub,” said Griffiths. “I’m raring to go. I’ve not felt any problem over the weekend or over the last two days training, so I’m feeling really good.
“The qualifiers were really good for me last season and I’ll try to replicate that form tomorrow night and next week. I scored in both legs when we played Astana in the third qualifying round last year. But I know this is going to be a difficult game, as is next week as well.”
While Celtic will clearly seek to take a lead with them to Kazakhstan, Rodgers would settle for a repeat of the 0-0 draw at home to Rosenborg in the first leg of the previous round.
“That shows you we can get results away from home in Europe now,” he said. “I look back at the images of last year’s team and how we play, it’s a different animal to last year. I look at the spaces and how open we were last year. It was just a different team with a different idea. Mentally, it was just trying to get them through it. But the team now plays in a different way and I think that will, hopefully, benefit us. We’ll take that into the game with the energy of the crowd and, if we have to be patient as we might have to do, we have to be compact and take our chances when they come.”