The curious case of Olivier Ntcham - and why Celtic midfielder should start against Rangers
Hatem Abd Elhamed now joining fellow Israeli international Nir Bitton and Odsonne Edouard in having contracted the virus, presents dilemmas for the Celtic manager in defence and attack. Meanwhile, Ryan Christie’s predicament completes an unwelcome set in leaving a vacancy in midfield. The 25-year-old has been forced out of the derby as a consequence of the quarantine period he is required to serve through being deemed a close contract of Stuart Armstrong, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Scotland duty.
Christie’s loss is likely to force Lennon’s hand and present Olivier Ntcham with a platform that might help answer once and for all whether the enigmatic midfielder can still dredge from within the application and appetite to prevent him betraying his talents in Celtic colours. The 24-year-old unquestionably should be selected alongside Scott Brown and Callum McGregor. The Frenchman possesses the physicality and guile to thrive in the hurly-burly of this gladiatorial battle, whether or not it will be dulled by the absence of supporters.
Ntcham’s track record – but we’re in the present
We know that Ntcham can cut it on such an occasion because he has in the past. The issue is that, in football terms, such excellence was in the relatively distant past. Across the past year-and-a-bit, Ntcham has often lolloped around in games as if he wishes he was somewhere else. Probably because he does. A fact that has become academic after the window closed without the player moving on.
The necessity for Ntcham to now buckle down to progress his career puts the onus on the £4.5m signing from Genoa in the summer of 2017 to concentrate on returning himself to the playmaker both dominant and decisive presence in the first derby of the 2018-19 season. A dazzling afternoon which he capped by plundering the only goal as Steven Gerrard’s first experience of the fixture ended in defeat.
Ntcham became something of a cause celebre for the Celtic support over his rationed game time across the early weeks of this season. At that juncture, a section of the club’s followers sought to present Lennon as a misguided manager with a Scott Brown blindspot. Ntcham was the player they damned him for too readily sacrificing, pointing to his exquisite finish following his late introduction in Rome last November that delivered the club a first win in Italy, courtesy of a 2-1 victory over Lazio.
Frenchman is in a select group
These malcontents have become noticeably mute as Ntcham has too often failed to impress this season. That is despite Lennon doing everything he can to kick-start the engine of a player whose natural design ought to see him purring on a regular basis. Ntcham is one of only four players - Callum McGregor, Brown and Christie the others - to have featured in every one of Celtic’s 13 games this season. With seven starts in the past seven weeks, Lennon could hardly be accused of setting his face against the mercurial talent. The fact Ntcham has completed only one full 90 minutes in that time might also tell a story...
None of this changes the fact that Saturday’s fixture is exactly the sort of occasion that still seems tailor made for Ntcham. If nothing else, what his contribution to a famous win over Lazio demonstrated is that he even in a fallowish period he retained the capacity to fashion a huge moment on the huge occasion.
Moreover, Ntcham, played alongside Brown and McGregor in a 3-5-1-1, can help solve a problem that has been evident for Celtic in many of the recent derbies. The 4-2-3-1 shape, with Christie in a more advanced role in the centre of an attacking three generally supporting Edouard, resulted in Brown and McGregor being outnumbered by a more orthodox midfield three. The clash of systems will be one of the many fascinations of the latest derby dust-up.
Why playing Ntcham involves less risk
Of course, it might be argued that David Turnbull, rather than Ntcham, could offer Celtic a different dimension. And present the Ibrox men with an element of the unknown. Already, with Vasilis Barkas, Shane Duffy and Diego Laxalt in line to start, Celtic will have three players unaccustomed to the particular dynamics of the encounter. In all likelihood, Edouard will not be risked. That raises the possibility of Albian Ajeti being a fourth derby newbie in the home ranks. Turnbull would be a fifth such performer. Deploying Ntcham lessens the danger of Lennon relying too heavily on derby debutants.
The Frenchman’s record in the fixture also plays in his favour. He has started six times against Rangers across his three-and-a-bit years in Scotland. Only in one of those games - the 1-0 defeat at Ibrox in the festive fixture of 2018 - has he finished on the losing side. He has two goals, admittedly one from the sport, in those six encounters. Indeed, with eight goals from his 25 starts and 13 substitute appearances last season he had a strike rate superior to any Rangers midfielder in the abridged campaign.
Furthermore, his last derby start - Celtic’s 2-1 victory in March 2019 - was the most recent occasion in which the club have carried the day in the derby within their own environs.
At only 24, Ntcham should be a player with everything in front of him. That will only be the case, though, if he proves capable of leaving his recent indifferent form behind in the event that Lennon places his trust on him at the weekend.
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