Leigh Griffiths seizes his chance to shine

This time last season, Leigh Griffiths was cleaning up the Player of the Year awards during a campaign in which he rattled home 40 goals.

Leigh Griffiths, modelling Celtic's Lisbon Lions-inspired kit for the 2017/2018 season, says he is facing 'five cup finals'. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

Fast forward 12 months and few would have believed he would have become Celtic’s second-choice striker, making his first starting appearance of 2017 only last Saturday.

Opportunities to shine have become limited for Griffiths due to the impact of Moussa Dembele, the man who has displaced him as the tip of the spear for the Scottish champions under Brendan Rodgers.

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With Dembele sidelined by a hamstring injury, Griffiths certainly seized the chance which came his way at Ibrox. The 26-year-old led the line impressively, his display headlined by a stunning goal in the record 5-1 rout at the home of Celtic’s beleaguered Old Firm rivals.

Dembele is battling to be fit in time for the final leg of Celtic’s domestic treble bid when they face Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final on 27 May. Griffiths wishes the young Frenchman well in his recovery, even though it might keep him on the sidelines for the showpiece occasion at Hampden.

But he is also ready to make the most of every minute of game time which comes his way in Celtic’s remaining four Premiership fixtures and the cup final, with one eye also on Scotland’s crucial World Cup qualifier against England at Hampden on 10 June.

“You want your best players available all the time,” said Griffiths. “Moussa will be a big miss for us if he’s not fit for the final. If he is, then it’s a massive lift for us as a team.

“We know what he can do and what kind of player he is – he has already proved that at Hampden against Rangers and Aberdeen in the League Cup. It was unfortunate he got injured last month. If Moussa had been fit he’d have played at Ibrox. But we knew he’d be missing and I knew I was going to play. I had to take the opportunity and play well and I did that.

“From my personal point of view I now hopefully have five cup finals to play over the next few weeks. I scored a good goal at Ibrox and was involved in a lot of decent things but the main objective is to get minutes, play as well as I can and get into the Scottish Cup final team. Then I’ve got another big game for Scotland in June and I want to be firing on all cylinders for that.”

Having had his levels of fitness and professionalism off the pitch publicly questioned by Celtic manager Rodgers earlier this season, Griffiths believes he has responded positively since then.

“There’s no one more disappointed than me when I’m injured,” he added. “Since I’ve come back I’ve proved my fitness and Moussa being injured now gives me a chance. Saturday was my first 90 minutes since 12 December. I hadn’t played too many minutes after that as well.

“The manager wanted me to come back and not break down. I had problems with my calves and I rushed back. Had I taken another few weeks then I’d have been fine. I’ve worked on it now and the last time I injured my calf I took some extra time and it’s been fine. There are still aspects of my game I can improve on and I know this manager will help me do that.

“It wasn’t heated between me and the gaffer. He thinks highly of me and knows what I can do but I can’t help him from the treatment table. If Moussa gets injured then I’m the next striker he needs to turn to. I need to step up and be the main man again.”

Dembele quickly earned a reputation as a big-occasion player, scoring goals at Champions League level and in Old Firm games. Griffiths is keen to counter any perception he falls short against better 

“I don’t want to be thrown into big games and bottle it,” he said. “You want to go in and prove you are worthy of being there. I proved that on Saturday when there was a massive crowd and pressure to go and beat Rangers comfortably. We did that and I showed I am still here. I can still score goals.

“My main aim this season was to play in the Champions League group stage. But for three quarters of it I was injured. I got injured leading up to the first Rangers game in September and then it was the Barcelona game 
days later.

“So hopefully next season, if we get to the Champions League again, I will have a huge part to play in showing everybody what I can do at that level.”