Even when delightful finishes from Daizen Maeda and David Turnbull ensured a satisfactory 2-0 win over their visitors for Ange Postecoglou’s men, the number that stood out was 21. The figure that detailed the number of players deployed by the Australian as he fine tuned his squad ahead of them beginning their title defence at home to Aberdeen next Sunday. A figure that was racked up with the Celtic manager supplying second-half run-outs to this week’s newest arrivals Moritz Jenz and Aaron Mooy.
It is significant because not one of those performers would represent Postecoglou digging deep into his reserves were he to hand them game-time. At this time last year, even assembling an acceptable first XI was proving an almighty stretch for the Celtic boss. The depth of his playing pool can be evidenced through the challenges presented to the assumption that the line-up he started against Dean Smith’s men, will be his starting team for the club’s flag day.
Matt O’Riley may have been a name on lips this week with Leicester City reportedly interested in a playmaker who has burnished his reputation with a couple of smart strikes over the summer. He started against Norwich. But it was his deputy for the day Turnbull that proved more of a headline act. Daintily skipping past a couple of markers before steering into the corner after 67 minutes made sure of that.
Owing to direct entry into the Champions League group stages Celtic could conceivably play a half dozen fewer games in the opening stretch of the season. Last season Postecoglou was forced to flog players because he had no alternatives. Now, he has them in every department. Just as Turnbull and O’Riley can share duties, so too can Kyogo Furuhashi and Giorgios Giakoumakis, who replaced the Japanese. Similarly with the others swapped on and off. In the form of Reo Hatate and Mooy, Jota and James Forrest, Greg Taylor and Alexandro Bernabei, Josip Juranovic and Anthony Ralston, Daizen Maeda and Liel Abada, and Stephen Welsh and Jenz. Fewer than half these players were even at the club last July.
Spared midweek games for the month of August because of their Champions League status, Celtic can ease their way into the season in a fashion unheard of for more than a decade, and spread the load as they do so in a manner that has been denied to them for much of that timespan.
These factors allowed Postecoglou to express contentment with his and his team’s lot, and it was understandable he was happy enough with what they produced against opponents regrouping following relegation from the English Premiership.
Celtic looked more cohesive across all areas of the pitch - that Cameron Carterer-Vickers, Juranovic, Taylor and Welsh were all in situ across the backline for one of the few times this close season - and the sharpness of their passing was a feature as they took a grip on a staccato affair. The engagement of the home crowd was as on-off until a curious 37th minute opener that brought that rarity: vindication for referee Willie Collum and his officials. Norwich players were cheesed off that no offside had been called on Juranovic after he received the ball out wide before sending it over to Maeda, who produced street-skill trickery to flick it behind him and through the legs of keeper Tim Krul when taking the ball on the half-spin.
The Croatian full-back was in an offside position when the ball that ended up with him was initially played by O’Riley. Replays showed, though, that it had come off Grant Hanley - forced off with injury just afterwards - en route. And because the Scotland international had attempted to cut it out, the rules now state that with the contact, it is at that point a new phase of play begins. So now we know.