Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths back to something like his deft and deadly best

Leigh Griffiths completes his hat-trick during Celtic's 5-0 victory over St Mirren. Picture: SNS.Leigh Griffiths completes his hat-trick during Celtic's 5-0 victory over St Mirren. Picture: SNS.
Leigh Griffiths completes his hat-trick during Celtic's 5-0 victory over St Mirren. Picture: SNS.
It is one of the more hackneyed football phrases to claim that any performer returning to a central role for a team following a lengthy period out is like a new player. But the description really does apply to Leigh Griffiths.

The deadliness and deftness demonstrated by the 29-year-old as he claimed a first hat-trick in four years against St Mirren on Saturday left him looking like a distant relation to the struggling striker who seemed at odds with himself long before he lost 2019 to personal issues and perennial calf problems.

No-one is saying that Griffiths has reverted to the man who was whipped into a more athletic frontman by Brendan Rodgers on the back of snaffling 40 goals in the 2016-17 season that ushered in the Irishman’s Celtic revolution. Both Griffiths and his manager Neil Lennon are at pains to stress constantly that the forward is far from the peak fitness level that his role demands of him, and certainly it appears as if his conditioning is a work in progress.

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But it is remarkable the extent to which Griffiths hasn’t only revitalised his own fortunes in the past seven weeks but the potency of Celtic as a team. It is a credit to Lennon that he considered switching to a 3-5-2 in order to accommodate Griffiths alongside Odsonne Edouard post-break, as the way to stir a side shaken by their home loss to Rangers just before the shutdown.

That experiment, for it really was that, has been a roaring success, with Griffths bagging eight goals in seven weeks to keep pace with the brilliant Edouard, who has bagged ten in the same period.

Moreover, in starting 11 games in the past two months Griffiths has proved a more central figure to the Celtic attack than at any stage since his 40-goal campaign. Since the arrival of first Moussa Dembele and then Edouard, he has essentially been a back-up. Now it can be argued that he has a starting role in 
Lennon’s strongest team.

If this has been revelatory to Celtic as they have stormed their way towards a ninth straight title, it will surely have given Scotland manager Steve Clarke food for thought. He is hardly blessed with a plethora of forwards to lead the line against Israel in the Nations League play-off semi-final at Hampden in under three weeks.

It is a year and a half since Griffiths started for Scotland. That was before his now team-mate Greg Taylor, pictured, had graduated to the senior international set-up. And he sees no reason why the next squad can’t be the first one in which they feature alongside one another for the first time.

“If Griff keeps doing what he’s doing. I’m sure he’ll be right back in Scotland contention,” said Taylor. “He’s enjoying his football and he is a really good option. Griff is scoring goals for Celtic so the national manager will be pleased.

“He can create goals and score goals and it’s brilliant to have him playing like that.

“It was brilliant for Griff to get a hat-trick against St Mirren. He’s been great since he came back in the team and he links so well with Odsonne. They can both score and create and it’s brilliant to have them. Griff gives us good options to play off and he has done really well. He is getting sharper all the time and he’s enjoying himself. We are all buzzing for him.”

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The more immediate buzz for Griffiths is the prospect of being selected for a derby trip to Ibrox that will present Celtic with the opportunity to establish a 16-point lead over their rivals, who have a game in hand.

His comments on Saturday that he was “born to play at Ibrox” in the Old Firm derby – with a record of two starts, two goals and two wins in the fixture – told of how good the player is feeling about himself.

Chillingly for Rangers, he could be one of a clutch of “new players” of the footballing parlance kind that Lennon unleashes next Sunday. Taylor has no experience of the confrontation, while Tom Rogic, Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed did not start as a tired-looking Celtic were taken down by Steven Gerrard’s men in their own environs on 29 December, in an encounter that was then read as a sign that their grip on the championship might just be loosening.

That seems an age ago now. Celtic’s Europa League elimination by Copenhagen means they will have a week to prepare for a gladiatorial contest Rangers will face only a few days after hosting Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League last 16.

Celtic will smell blood in seeing their square-go in Govan as the chance to put right their recent wrongs in the derby that were so wrongly 



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