Following a 40 goal season, Leigh Griffiths and Celtic fans must have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of him improving under Brendan Rodgers. It looked like it would be a relationship that would blossom, the striker netting five times in Celtic’s Champions League qualification journey plus twice more in the opening four league games.
However, a combination of injury and Moussa Dembele resulted in Griffiths kicking his heels on the bench or in the stands. On a personal level it has been a frustrating season for the Scottish international.
Yet, if you analysed Griffiths’ stats coming into the Old Firm game he has had an incredibly productive season despite playing less than the likes of Nir Bitton and Tom Rogic, who missed large parts of the season himself. In terms of minutes played he has the 15th most in the Celtic squad but his output has been exceptional.
In the league he has averaged 1.38 non-penalty goals or assists every game. In layman’s terms that means he either scores a goal (excluding penalties) or provides an assist every game.
This afternoon? He both scored and assisted.
There is no doubt Dembele has been a sensational signing. He’s scored goals, provided a focal point, become a facilitator and done the business on the European stage. He will go for a large fee. But let’s not allow that to overshadow Griffiths. In terms of talent at this moment there is not much between the strikers.
It would be no surprise if Aberdeen are more worried about facing the nimble and sharp Griffiths rather than Dembele in the Scottish Cup final. If his performance at Ibrox is anything to go buy he’ll be netting in a Celtic win come May 27.
From the first whistle he was alert and sharp. He should have been played in by Callum McGregor in the second half much to his dismay, before grabbing the second with a stupendous strike which was too powerful for Foderingham.
He then curled an effort off the bar not long after, and while he didn’t have too many more opportunities he was getting into dangerous positions constantly.
But it was his all-round play which would have impressed Rodgers, who is often reluctant to praise his striker too much. There was intelligent movement, cute link up play and smart touches.
Gordon Strachan will be rubbing his hands now.
What were Rangers doing?
It was unfortunate to see Pedro Caixinha being ridiculed after Sunday’s Scottish Cup defeat to today’s opponents when he attempted to demonstrate his tactics with drinks glasses. I’m afraid, even using the Queen’s finest cutlery would see Caixinha struggle to explain his team’s approach, structure and formation to even the most open-minded of inquisitors.
Caixinha said in his pre-match interview that they would set up in a diamond shape. Rodgers, in his post-match interview, said they expected just that.
Even still, this was a diamond with very rough edges.
The game begun with a ravenous pace. The Rangers manager was energetic on the sideline willing his players into closing their opponents down and squeezing the game. Yet, that only works if there is structure to the pressing, if the players are doing so in unison. They weren’t.
Rangers were being overrun and little was being done to stem the flow.
As has been an common occurrence since coming in, Caixinha looked to change it at half-time, perhaps suggesting he keeps getting his starting line-up wrong rather than being a proactive manager.
The second half started in the same fashion as how much of the first played out. A dispiriting afternoon.
While much can and will be said about Pedro Caixinha’s tactical set-up, adjustments and expectations, the players he put on the pitch have to take personal responsibility.
Few of the 11 did so, with arguably only Kenny Miller and maybe Clint Hill and Josh Windass able to walk away with any sort of respectability. Others wilted or erred more than once.
Caixinha’s game plan was all but chucked out the window when Myles Beerman slid in unwisely to challenge Patrick Roberts when there was little in the way of danger, handing Celtic a golden opportunity to take the lead from the spot.
Then James Tavernier.
He had already allowed Callum McGregor to slip in with a little under two minutes on the clock. He was let off when Hill produced a last-gasp block. Then for the second goal he failed to anticipate the danger of Stuart Armstrong winning the ball in midfield.
While Emerson Hyndman battled with his Celtic counterpart, Tavernier was already on his way forward, leaving a gaping space for Leigh Griffiths to attack if Celtic were to win the ball. Which is exactly what happened. With Tavernier on the front foot Griffiths had the time to set himself and blast in Celtic’s second to effectively ending the game as a contest.
While he way have an impressive attacking output, time and time again he leaves Rangers short at the back. A defensive liability. That should concern Caixinha, his lack of understanding and his ability to learn.
As for Beerman, it was another chastening experience against Patrick Roberts. But there is at least promise there, the raw materials to work with.
Boys v men
At Hampden Park on Wednesday Celtic’s youngsters won the Scottish Youth Cup final against their Glasgow rivals. It was notable how much more developed and further along in their development the Celtic youngsters were in comparison to their Rangers counterparts.
It was the same at Ibrox on Saturday afternoon.
Yet, with the Rangers youngsters there was clearly room for progress and improvement. For the first team? Not so much.
Celtic were rampant. It wasn’t just the fact they were better in every facet of play, it was how much better they were. Quicker, stronger, more powerful, more skill, greater heart and effort, more confidence, more intelligence, better game management, better organisation, structure. They have an idea. They have better players.
They knew Rangers, in front of a fervent support, would be ready for a battle, 100 miles per hour football. They knew that and matched that. Some teams would soak up the first wave of pressure before easing themselves into the match. Not this Celtic team. They have little respect for the opposition and you have to respect them for it.
They went out there and imposed their own game on Rangers. Matched the effort, the pressing, the running which then allowed them to play the way they wanted, the way Rodgers wants them to play.
With confidence brimming the ball was moved around the Ibrox pitch with zest, with a purpose, with a, and here’s that word again, idea.
They were everything Rangers were not. Celtic under Brendan Rodgers look like a team who are moving only one way.
Rangers on the other hand must worry. There is little for Caixinha or the fans to cling on to, knowing it will get better. A substantial squad renovation has to be undertaken. Not just to get closer to Celtic but to make sure they are best of the rest next season.
The gap is big and only getting bigger.
Silky Scott Sinclair
Finally, a word or three on Scott Sinclair. The Englishman is the best player in the country at the moment. Perhaps not the best performing player but the player with the most talent.
Netting his 25th of the season, he is on the verge of bettering his most productive season when he led Swansea City, under the management of Brendan Rodgers, to the Premiership with 27 goals, including a hat-trick in the Championship play-off final.
That was the 2010/2011 season. Since then his appearances read: 40, 18, 11, 16, 33. Goals? 8, 2, 0, 3, 6.
Under Rodgers once more, he has been reinvigorated. With five games to go he has played 45 times, scored 25 and assisted a further 10.Only Mikael Lustig, Scott Brown and Craig Gordon have played more.
He plays with a verve that gets fans off their seats. And in the opening stages at Ibrox he looked like he finally might find that fifth gear and terrorise Rangers. Again and again. Yet, as soon as Celtic were comfortable he went down the gears and still played with ease.
That is the only criticism of him - if you can call it a criticism - he’s never had to play at his very best. Watching Sinclair there is always a sense that there is still more to come. It is a case of ‘God help the poor full-back when Sinclair decides it is REALLY time to play’.
As the Celtic fans sing, he is fast as lightening, it’s frightening. He combines searing pace with balletic feet and has built up a rapport with both Moussa Dembele and Kieran Tierney.
He was the unfortunate target of two mindless acts by Rangers fans but that won’t stop him demoralising opposition defenders for the foreseeable future, while Celtic tell everyone about how wonderful he is.