Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers says Leigh Griffiths can have no complaints at being dropped by Scotland last week and warned his striker he must improve on and off the pitch if he wants to establish himself as a first pick for club and country.
Griffiths claimed Scotland manager Alex McLeish had delivered a “kick in the teeth” by indicating that Hearts striker Steven Naismith, who replaced him for the Uefa Nations League game against Albania at Hampden, was likely to keep his place for next month’s fixture in Israel.
Naismith forced an own goal and scored himself in the 2-0 win over Albania.
But Rodgers backed McLeish’s team selection, urging Griffiths to increase his workrate in training and adapt his all-round game to the evolving demands of being a top striker.
Rodgers said: “I was at the Albania game and I thought Steven Naismith was excellent. He worked his socks off and got two goals – you can’t complain with that.
“Leigh knows his qualities but he has to, at this stage of his career, work tirelessly at all aspects of his game. In the modern game, strikers are changing. It is not just about scoring goals any more, you have to do more than that.
“Strikers are now running underneath, pressing from behind, working, so there is no other way you can take that out other than on the training field and work even harder. When opportunities are there, then you come and take them.”
Rodgers sees Griffiths as a valuable member of his squad and was happy to endorse the new contract signed by the player last week, tying him to Celtic until 2022.
But Rodgers stressed that the 28-year-old, who has scored 100 goals in 192 appearances for the Parkhead club since joining from Wolves in 2014, cannot expect only to be judged on his finishing expertise.
“He’s great to have in our squad, that’s why we wanted to give him another deal,” added Rodgers. “We know he can score goals. But, like I say, at top teams it’s about more than that.
“It’s something he’ll continue to work hard on, that side of his game. That will always improve his chances domestically and, of course, also at international level. You’re always learning. You shouldn’t think that at 28, you’re a senior professional and that you stop learning. Every day you’re learning, whether you’re 32, 35 – whatever.
“The game’s changing every year. The game gets quicker, gets faster. As long as you’re doing your best – that’s all I always say to the players – as long as you’re preparing yourself the very best you can, training hard, that is all you can do. It’s up to me then to pick the team.
“So when you sign your deal, you sign a training contract. You sign to train the very hardest you possibly can. Prepare yourself physically and mentally the very best you can.
“You’ve got to get your training right here in order to have a chance. That’s the modern game at the very highest level, or the levels you try to aspire to.
“Training is so important, you need to be ready to work and then when opportunities come, whether you’re Leigh Griffiths or anyone else, you need to be ready to take them.
“That’s the message to every player, not just Leigh. You have to be ready to do that. Then you have a difficult job as a manager. Otherwise, if people aren’t pushing themselves, then it’s quite an easy job to pick the team.”
Asked specifically if Griffiths is training as hard as he could, Rodgers replied: “That’s none of your business, really. You just need to judge him on the pitch when he plays. You don’t need to ask me that.”
Rodgers also stated he is “unsure” whether Griffiths and French striker Odsonne Edouard could operate as a pairing for Celtic if he wanted to play with two up front. Edouard is likely to lead the line when Celtic open their Europa League group stage campaign against Rosenborg in Glasgow tonight.
The Scottish champions will be without Kristoffer Ajer who has been laid low by a virus, the Norwegian joining fellow central defender Jozo Simunovic, who has a knee injury, on the absentee list.
Jack Hendry is fit again and back in the squad, with on-loan Leicester City stopper Filip Benkovic also in contention for a place at the back.
But Nir Bitton’s planned return to action this month will now be delayed. The Israeli international has been sidelined since February with a knee injury.
“He’s had a minor setback that puts him back a couple of weeks,” revealed Rodgers. “It will probably be after the next international break next month before he is back. He’s working tirelessly to get back. Nir will be great for us when he does return.”