Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has tipped Moussa Dembele to finish the way he started when it comes to this weekend’s derby meeting with Rangers at Ibrox.
The France Under-21 striker, a £500,000 cross-border bargain buy from Fulham in the summer of 2016, wasted no time in making an impact at home and abroad after arriving in Glasgow.
Leigh Griffiths, Scotland’s player of the year after pillaging 40 goals the previous season, became a peripheral figure as Dembele capitalised on an injury to the Scot and made himself undroppable, notching 19 goals by Hogmanay.
He continued to lead the line in impressive fashion, adding another 13 goals before succumbing to hamstring problems in the 2-0 Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Rangers.
Consequently, he did not play again during that campaign and a brief comeback in July soon faltered as he once again fell victim to a hamstring injury.
He spent three weeks at Clarefontaine, the French Football Federation’s centre of excellence, as part of his rehabilitation, but Rodgers argues that it is only now that the player has been able to recapture that scintillating early form and, with Griffiths recovering once more from another setback, he will lead the line in what may yet prove to be a title decider this weekend.
A brace in Saturday’s 3-0 Scottish Cup quarter-final victory over Morton came hard on the heels of the opening goal in the 2-0 win at Aberdeen, suggesting that Dembele – who claimed five goals in his first three derbies – is ready to wreak havoc on Rangers yet again.
“I think he is a big-game player, Moussa,” said Rodgers. “The players need to do it at Celtic in every match but, certainly in those big games, he has always come up trumps and shown his qualities.”
History is littered with footballers, particularly goalscorers, who relied on their pace only to discover that their careers had peaked prematurely as a result of persistent hamstring complaints, with former Liverpool, Real Madrid and England forward Michael Owen one such victim.
Rodgers admits that part of the solution for Dembele has been learning to trust his body again. “The unfortunate thing, especially with dynamic and fast players, is that they can tend to have that issue,” he said. “Moussa had a few of those setbacks and [consequently] you are always trying to monitor and watch the situation. But there are various reasons for it.
“He has worked very hard to get his [body] right and get his level of fitness up and, as you can see now, he looks much better.
“It’s never easy when you have those muscular injuries and, on top of that, it’s coming to terms with [having to cope with] so many games.
“He started the first part of last season and it was very good for him. The second part was unfortunate because he was injured for a lot of that period and then he started this season a little bit like that.
“It could be, though, that this time the second part of the season is when he comes alive. But there is no doubt he has that hunger and energy back in his game and that is very important for us.”
Dembele has 12 goals to his name thus far this season and, while he may not match last year’s total, Rodgers expects him to produce a compelling argument to critics who claim he had previously been over-rated between now and May.
He argues that he should be helped to concentrate on his football without the constant speculation which swirled around him during the last two transfer windows. As a result, he hopes to see the Dembele of 18 months ago.
“Yeah, and I think the background noise has gone,” said Rodgers. “That’s absolutely key for any player. I think what you see is a young player free now in his mind to focus on his strengths.
“When he is able to do that he is a real handful. He was terrific in the game here against Zenit St Petersburg and, in the return game over there, he played very well when the team, collectively, was not at its best.
“Against Aberdeen he showed his power and now he is again moving just as I would expect. You have to work really, really hard; you need to have an intensity and we can see that in his game now.
“He is using his strength, his power, and he is a top-class young striker.”