BRENDAN Rodgers may have a big decision to make regarding who lines up between the sticks versus Manchester City on Wednesday.
Pep Guardoila, who he will test himself against in that match, sent shockwaves through the English media last month when he told Joe Hart that he was free to leave the Etihad. By then, he had been working behind the scenes to bring Claudio Bravo to the club and had been selecting Willy Caballero ahead of the England international.
The decision was based on sound logic. Guardiola prefers his side to pass from the back and that includes having a technically competent goalkeeper to provide a spare man at the back when defenders are struggling to find a forward pass. Hart, for all his strengths, was deemed to be lacking in this area.
However, in his first match Bravo dropped a clanger in the Manchester derby. That same weekend Hart made his debut for Torino and completed more passes than he had in any of his previous matches for Manchester City.
Luckily, Guardolia’s side were already two goals ahead in that match and held on for the victory. The fact that they are blowing most opposition they face out of the water means the former Barcelona coach did not face much scrutiny.
There are some interesting parallels to be drawn with their opponents on Wednesday.
Dorus de Vries, like Bravo, was brought in because of his talent with the ball at his feet. He was unveiled as compeition for Craig Gordon but usurped the Scotland international within a few matches of arriving from Nottingham Forest.
Until that point, Celtic had managed just two clean sheets in their opening nine matches – one came in the dismantling of Motherwell in the League Cup, the other at home to Gibraltarian part-timers Lincoln Red Imps.
In the match before Gordon was replaced, even though there were other players more culpable, Gordon did not look convincing for Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s second goal in Israel, which set up a nervous end to the match.
Celtic scraped through, preserving a handy lead from the first leg, but Gordon was then dropped in favour of De Vries for the subsequent visit of Aberdeen. The thinking behind the decision, again echoing that of Guardolia, is that the Dutchman is technically superior to Gordon and, therefore, is more suited to the Rodgers pass-from-the-back style.
But as was diligently pointed out by a couple of broadcasters after De Vries’s first few matches, he doesn’t appear to be any better than Gordon at playing a neatly clipped ball to the chest of a full-back.
He also doesn’t seem to be an improvement, in fact he appears to be worse, at shot-stopping.
Billy King’s goal last week in Inverness is a perfect example. Although it was a cracking effort from the Hearts loanee, De Vries got to the ball and probably should have pushed it away from danger. Similarly, versus Kilmarnock this weekend, Souleymane Coulibaly was allowed to score from an outrageous distance.
The goal means that since being selected as Rodgers’s custodian of choice, De Vries has conceded 12 goals in five matches, including seven at the Nou Camp, and has failed to keep a clean sheet.
While this was an even better strike than King’s last week, De Vries doesn’t seem to be positioned well enough in the first place to stop the effort, which is slightly towards the centre of the goal when it crosses the line and into the goal. The ball does have some dip and swerve, but the goalkeeper should do better given the distance between the ball leaving Coulibaly’s right foot and hitting the back of the net.
There is certainly a case to be made for Gordon to be recalled as the number one. His drop in form from his first season at Celtic could be seen as a result of the defesive tombola that Celtic have engaged in over the last 12 months. No settled back line, coupled with the odd inclusion of erratic centre-halves like Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata, must not have been easy for him.
This season the defence appears to be showing signs of settling down. Kolo Toure, though rested versus Kilmarnock, is first choice alongside the dependable Erik Sviatchenko, while Jozo Simunovic, who has shown signs of being a classy defender when he is fit, and Eoghan O’Connell will provide adequate competition.
Lincoln Red Imps and Barcelona aside, it has been a very impressive start from Rodgers, who has presided over eight wins in eight domestic matches while qualifying for the Champions League group stage, and who has recruited vast amounts of quality from just a few outfield additions.
It is clear Celtic will win the league at a canter and anything from their Champions League group-of-death will be a bonus. However, Rodgers appears to have brought some unnecessary pressure his way by selecting De Vries at the first possible opportunity – the former Dunfermline ‘keeper arrived injured and was selected as soon as he recovered.
The decision could be taken out of Rodgers’s hands, however, as De Vries was replaced by Gordon at half-time. Reports suuggest that the Dutchman strained his chest, though there are conflicting accounts about whether this was a result of trying to save the shot or whether it was from kicking the post in frustration afterwards.
Either way, De Vries’s frustration shows that he must he aware that he has so far failed to impress since being given his opportunity and his manager must have realised that he has not improved the side through dropping Gordon.
Come Wednesday, if De Vries recovers, it will be interesting to see if he retains his place or if Gordon is finally given the chance to fulfil his ambition of playing in the Champions League.