Celtic manager backs misfiring frontman Edouard and insists club will find its form, writes Andrew Smith
It might seem as if Celtic are playing Rosenborg on a loop right now. Odsonne Edouard, though, could feel that lifetimes can pass between such games. The 1-0 Europa League win at Parkhead over the Norwegians the other night came only eight weeks on from a 3-1 victory against them at the same ground in a Champions League qualifier.
However, everything seems to have changed for the 20-year-old French striker in the intervening period. Edouard was rampant in the 3-1 success that was underpinned by his double. It took his tally for the fledgling season to three goals in three games and led to claims the club record fee of £9 million paid to Paris Saint-Germain for the youngster represented a steal. Fast forward to Thursday night and, with only one goal in his subsequent seven games, Edouard is being accused of stealing a starting slot from Leigh Griffiths – who conjured up a match-winning goal only minutes after replacing his frontline rival late on in an exasperating encounter for Brendan Rodgers’ men.
Belief appears to be wavering among the Celtic support in Edouard’s current abilities in Celtic’s post-Moussa Dembele world. Rodgers, though, remains steadfast in his conviction that the forward is the realest of real deals. Of course, the Irishman has considerable skin in the game in pushing his board to sanction an unprecedented outlay on an acquisition.
Rodgers’ narked response to a contention made about Edouard this week proved revealing on that front. It was put to him that, while his current first pick for the central striking role is unquestionably a good player, such issues as he is encountering might be related to not possessing the penalty-box craft of Dembele – now experiencing his own difficulties in justifying Lyon’s £19.3m spend on him.
“Nah,” the Celtic manager retorted in a manner that suggested he considered there was temerity in such a claim. “He’s more than just good. He’s a top-class player. For his age, one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He can do everything. He’s a different type to Moussa, different type to Leigh – he’s a player who can play with any top striker.
“I just think it’s the offensive side of our game as a whole, from back to front. It’s something we need to improve. He’s working hard but confidence is a big thing for players. The only way you have that confidence and success is by your hard work so the players are working really hard. And as the season goes on, we’ll get better, and he’ll get better.”
It would be no surprise were Rodgers to resist the clamour to play Griffiths at Kilmarnock this afternoon, though the Scotland international is likely to start as the double-treble winners face another testing week courtesy of a Betfred League Cup quarter-final away to St Johnstone on Wednesday ahead of hosting Aberdeen in the league three days later.
With the form of both French youngsters Edouard and Olivier Ntcham shading since their pal Dembele departed, there might be the temptation to wonder if they are pining for their pal. Rodgers didn’t much care for the notion he had to be “careful” and coax a sense of focus out of the pair as they adjust to losing a pivotal member of their support structure in Glasgow. “There’s nothing in that,” he said. “I have to make sure all the players are ok. I always speak to all of them. There’s no issue.”
The issue for Celtic is that a certain sterility has crept into their play, Rodgers conceding they are struggling to produce the “dynamism” that fuelled them through his first two, record-redrawing seasons.
Ntcham being suspended for today’s Kilmarnock trip following his dismissal at St Mirren offers Rodgers an opportunity to freshen up a side in which Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor, James Forrest and Ntcham have been looking weary. It would appear the perfect time to introduce new signing Youssouf Mulumbu, and he would assuredly agree. He gives the impression of believing he is fated to make his Celtic debut at the Ayrshire club he graced with such distinction in a six-month loan spell last season.
The 31-year-old says his “respect” for Kilmarnock is such that he would not celebrate were he to score today... though he is at pains to stress that he is desperate to do so because there can be “no pity and no mercy in football”.
There can, however, be greater precision in Celtic’s play as they seek to create openings, which he is bullish he can offer. “You can see right now that we have such good players, but we are just missing a spark,” Mulumbu said. “We are needing to take on the risky pass maybe, and hopefully I can provide that, and this season is going to be brilliant for Celtic. I am a little impatient to play with my team-mates and to show what ability I have. It’s going to be probably my time on Sunday with the red card that Olivier Ntcham had last week. I’m just training hard and I just need to show to the gaffer that whenever he needs me, I’m going to be ready.”
Mulumbu said it would be “special” to play Kilmarnock and coach Steve Clarke, to whom he will be forever grateful for the revival of his career. He marvels at the former West Brom manager’s tactical nous while being tickled by his taciturn ways. “He opened up more at Kilmarnock, because when I was at West Brom he wasn’t talking at all,” said Mulumbu of a “great coach who deserves all the praise he is getting”. “When I came to Kilmarnock, the players were always asking me what he was thinking, because they never knew. I told them that as long as he doesn’t talk, that means he’s happy.”