There was a thought about what Moussa Dembele could possibly do for his next trick after last month becoming the first player in half a century to hit a hat-trick in a league match between Celtic and Rangers. The answer was make a 40-goals-in-a-season striker largely disappear.
The 20-year-old Frenchman will again lead the line for Brendan Rodgers’ men this afternoon in the Betfred League Cup semi-final at Hampden against the team they slayed 5-1 six weeks ago. As a result, despite his appeal to his manager this week, Leigh Griffiths will again probably be restricted to a brief appearance late on.
Size this week may have become a – misleading – fixation regarding Griffiths’ inability to earn a start for Gordon Strachan’s Scotland, but at club level it has caused the Leither’s status to be a substitute in every game since he returned to full fitness a month ago. The Celtic team just isn’t big enough to accommodate both him and Dembele. Not when Rodgers has settled upon the very 4-2-3-1 for which his predecessor Ronny Deila was once slated.
At Liverpool, Rodgers famously found a system that allowed him to play both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez without weakening the team in other areas – as was speculated would be the outcome. However, the Irishman, right, doesn’t feel he is in a position to find room for both Dembele and Griffiths.
“It is different, it is not so much them as what is behind them,” the Irishman said. “Because you have to be able to function behind that, you have to have certain physical qualities to play. If you play two, then you play a diamond then you need real physical mobility in the diamond. Leigh is not really a wide player, he is a central striker and Moussa is a central striker so when you have them it is how you shape up behind that.
“There will come some point when I can do that because I will have the players to allow me to flip about. Until then we have to pick the best team to get the result. It is unfortunate for Leigh that there are times he hasn’t played because he has been top class since I have been here. But you get injured and your place is taken by one of the top young strikers in Europe. It is tough but his mentality has been brilliant. Not easy for him but he has really matured well.”
The standards that Dembele has set for himself following his remarkable scoring run that climaxed in a two-goal performance in the 3-3 draw against Manchester City three weeks ago made his unremarkable showing in the 2-0 filleting by Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Champions League feel like a setback. Preposterous, when the youngster, not long out of his teens and just months after joining for £500,000 from Fulham, is averaging a goal every 100 minutes in bagging 13 already this campaign.
He has shown such explosive qualities, and been love-bombed to such an extent – John Hartson this week saying he was on a par with £32 million Chelsea summer buy Michy Batshuayi after Rodgers saying you could buy his big toe for £15m and comparing him to a young Didier Drogba – that there is an expectation he will produce something special every time. That is why there have been wagers placed on him to be the first player to score a hat-trick in a League Cup game between Celtic and Rangers since Ally McCoist did so for the Ibrox side in the 1984 final, 11 years after Harry Hood was the last man to achieve the triple in Celtic colours in a semi-final victory for his side.
Dembele doesn’t baulk at the prospect of a hat-trick double: “I hope it will be possible for me to produce another performance like that. If it happens like it did last time then I will be very happy. The priority is to win, that is the first thing in my mind. But if I manage to score then of course I will be happy. I had lots of positive attention after the Rangers game. They want to show you how happy they are. But the last game has gone and we need to make a new experience.”
The impetus for making that “new experience” is wiping away the bitter one that was being outclassed by the Germans at Celtic Park in midweek, a result that leaves Rodgers’ side all but certain to finish bottom of Group C, and struggling to add to their one point with a trip to Mönchengladbach in 11 days to be followed by Barcelona and Manchester City away.
“We expected Borussia to be exactly as they were, said Dembele. “Two mistakes cost us the game so it is all about learning. We learned a lesson on Wednesday and we won’t make the same mistakes again. Sometimes you have to fall to wake up better. What happened against Mönchengladbach will make us a better team in the long run.”
How much better Dembele becomes over the season is one of the campaign’s fascinations.