Moussa Dembele showed considerable composure when he calmly fired home an added-time penalty to settle Celtic’s third qualifying round Champions League tie against FC Astana the other week
At the tender age of 20, and as a late substitute, the French forward shouldered the responsibility for a kick potentially pivotal to the quest to pocket £20 million – and he did so with the pressure beginning to build as he still awaited a first goal following a £500,000 move from Fulham in the summer.
Dembele has now revealed there was another element to make that penalty a truly momentous moment in his career. The striker had never before taken one at professional level.
Now, he has taken two. A conversion the other night in the Betfred Cup bashing of Motherwell followed that admirable account-opener against Astana.
The goals at Celtic Park these past two Wednesdays are both a comfort and concern should he be required to step up for a decisive spot-kick against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the Champions League play-off, a tie that will see the Israeli side visit Glasgow this week for Wednesday’s first leg. But so far, at least, he has a 100 per cent record.
Brendan Rodgers instantly making the youngster Celtic’s designated penalty taker could be perceived as another indication that the club’s new manager has an instinct for good judgment calls. For Dembele wasn’t subjected to an exhaustive process before the Irishman decided he might be better placed for the job than Leigh Griffiths, who has oddly missed a few in recent seasons.
“As soon as I came here the manager made me the penalty taker, so I was happy,” Dembele said. “I have been taking penalties in training. I didn’t take the penalties at Fulham, Ross McCormack did. So my first one was against Astana, it was good. The last round was a good thing for me with that first goal for the team helping us into the next round. Now that is finished and it’s up to me in the next game to be focused and give everything I can to the team.”
It was Dembele’s focus and the absence of fuss that so impressed about his, professionally untried, penalty technique. He paused to set himself after the referee blew the whistle for it to be taken, took only a single pace backwards, and lashed the ball high into the net. All deliberate actions.
“I take my time, I don’t take any pressure, I just focus on the penalty and on the keeper and that’s it,” Dembele said. “I’ve always done it and it’s good and hopefully I can keep scoring them.”
The product of the Paris Saint-Germain youth academy might appear mature beyond his years. He only left behind his teens a month ago. Yet, the fact he made the trip to watch Champions League football at the Emirates Stadium last season after attending the final the previous year is evidence he is hardly precious in now looking to make good a long-held ambition to mix it with the cream of world football.
Dembele’s best buddy in football in Kingsley Coman, currently on loan at Bayern Munich from Juventus. The pair spent their early teens in the PSG youth set-up, and he was in Berlin to support the winger as he appeared as a late substitute in the Turin side’s defeat by Barcelona in the 2015 decider. His move to Germany meant Dembele was sitting with Coman’s family when his pal was left on the bench as Munich lost 2-0 in London last October.
“Kingsley is a big friend. We had been playing together for seven years because he came to PSG one year after me. We were there together for seven years and also played together in the national team. He has already made it and I am happy for him. He deserves it and now it is up to me to do the job as well.
“It would be a dream for me to play in this competition as I’ve been watching it all my life. To be there doing it myself instead of watching would be amazing, something crazy. Hopefully we can win both games against Hapoel and make the group stage.”
Yet, Dembele recognises that the desperation of both those in the stands and on the pitch to seize a group-stage berth must not be reflected in the home side’s play – which new signing Scott Sinclair looks like he will impressively embroider.
“We have to approach it like a normal game. We don’t have to add any extra pressure on ourselves. We just have to focus on ourselves. We’ve been working hard to get to this stage and I hope we can go on and complete the job. The more we play, the better we get to know each other as players. And I feel we are getting better with each game.”