The Betfred Cup semi-final weekend of last season appeared to spell the beginning of the end for Moussa Dembele at Celtic. All because, when he netted a late winner against Rangers to take his goal tally to ten in ten games, the £25m offer the Scottish champions could not afford to turn down for the 20-year-old seemed only a shortly-arriving transfer window away.
The impact of the forward that had cost Celtic a paltry £500,000 from Fulham had by then been spectacular – the player becoming a furnace-like property following a dazzling two-goal display against Manchester City in the Champions League and the first league hat-trick in an encounter between Celtic and Rangers for 40 years. The devastation being then caused by a Dembele that would hit 32 goals inside six months was so irresistible that the 40-goal exploits of Leigh Griffiths the previous campaign did not prevent the Scot being reduced to second fiddle.
Injuries, though, can send the most stratospheric of career trajectories arcing downwards at a rapid rate. Back to back hamstring injuries – the first in April, the second in July – have meant that Dembele has scored only once since March, and now must defer to Griffiths. Moreover, no-one is talking about Celtic having a £25m forward in their ranks, with no English or French clubs now being quoted as “ready to pounce” for the player.
Brendan Rodgers maintains that there have been indications in the past week that the pre-injury Dembele could be ready to come to the fore once more. Enough, indeed, to raise the possibility of his being given the nod for the Betfred Cup semi-final against Hibernian at Hampden this lunchtime ahead of Griffiths, who has hardly had time to pause between leading the line for club and country.
“I do see signs that he [Dembele] is getting back to where he was last season and I’ve told him that over the last week,” Rodgers said. “With Moussa, you notice it in his running. When he came on against Dundee [last Saturday], his mobility and running ability was there. It was the same in his half hour against Bayern Munich [on Wednesday]. He is going to be prominent for us in the next number of weeks.
“I had to ease him back in after the injuries. It’s part that and it’s part how well the team and Leigh have been doing. He has played very well and you must respect that. My job is to try and manage that situation. If Leigh needs a rest or a breather, and Moussa plays, then it’s my job to decide that. They are both good lads and Leigh has been great since he came back from his calf injury. But all strikers want to play and score goals.
“With Moussa, it’s about recognising where he is at. He is a top talent, a fantastic player and it’s about communication with him. But Moussa gets it. That has always been my feeling with him. He knows how good a player he is but he’s also been humble with it. He respects where the team is at and he knows he has to fight and work to get in there.
“It’s not always an upward curve. He’s been unfortunate with injuries but his understanding of why he’s not in the team is important. Silence is a death sentence for a player. You can’t not talk to him. If you live your life as a player and there is no communication, then you get in your car after training and your agent calls. It will be, ‘Are you playing? Why not?’ Then you go home and your family is asking. Communication stabilises emotion and you are always trying to do that with a squad. But he will get opportunities as the season pans out.”
Opportunities to give players the chance to step out from the fray could be as important to Rodgers and his team. The constant breakdowns being suffered by Jozo Simunovic – out for another three weeks with a recurrence of a hamstring problem – Dembele’s issue and the injuries that have beset Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko would suggest that. Likewise, Celtic’s heavy schedule that sees them competing in three different competitions across eight days, owing to this afternoon’s semi-final being sandwiched between the midweek Munich mauling in the Champions League and this Wednesday’s top-of-the-table confrontation at Aberdeen.
“For some of these young players, you have to watch and manage them. That’s why I gave Kieran [Tierney] a rest recently. You can’t keep playing all the time. At 19 or 20, you can’t play every club game and international game and expect to not get injured. The body just isn’t used to it.
“It’s different for senior players who have a lot more games in their legs. You plan and manage your body through it, but it’s hard for young players. Look at Dedryck Boyata when he came to Celtic. He was 24 but hadn’t played a lot of games.
“Then, all of a sudden, he’s asked to play all these games. Jozo is a player who, unfortunately, has had his fair share of injuries. You look at every detail to try to help them but sometimes the body just doesn’t allow it. It’s been difficult for Jozo, but he’s a tough boy and he will come again.”