Moussa Dembele says Celtic is the best place for him
When your right-back finds himself on the left side of the opposing team's penalty area and delivers a rabona pass to help set up a goal as part of a move which has also involved every one of his team-mates, it's fair to say you must be doing something right as a manager.
Such is the confidence, vibrancy and freedom with which Celtic are capable of performing under the transformational influence of Brendan Rodgers this season.
That final goal in their 5-2 win at St Johnstone on Sunday, with Mikael Lustig’s extravagant contribution followed by a back-heel flick from Callum McGregor into the path of Moussa Dembele, setting up the French striker for his hat-trick, can scarcely have been bettered as a team goal in any league across Europe this season.
“There was a lot of technical stuff in there, penalty box skills and that goal was a pleasure for me,” reflected Dembele. “I’m happy”.
Little wonder. The 20-year-old finds himself as the headline act in this stellar season for the Scottish champions. Just in case Celtic were starting to get used to operating without a recognised striker – something which had barely hampered them in his absence – Dembele marked his return from injury with the 25-minute match-winning treble at McDiarmid Park which reminded everyone just why so many noughts have been freely added to his notional transfer value over the past six months or so.
Notwithstanding the patently erroneous award of the penalty kick which Dembele converted with his first touch of the ball after stepping off the subs’ bench when Celtic were trailing 2-1, it was a hugely impressive display of precise and ruthless finishing from a player resourcefully recruited from Fulham last summer for a development fee of around £500,000.
Whether the exponential growth of his abilities and profile under Rodgers genuinely merits the price tag of £40 million now being hung around his neck remains open to debate. What is certain, however, is that Dembele is a striker of enormous potential and one who also appears to be blessed with an innate sense of occasion.
The first of his 23 goals so far for Celtic came in stoppage time of a nerve-jangling Champions League third qualifying round, second leg showdown against Astana at the start of August. Dembele was the calmest person inside Celtic Park as he slotted home the penalty which edged his team through 3-2 on aggregate against the Kazakh side.
In the play-off round, Dembele scored what proved to be an equally important goal in the first leg against Hapoel Beer-Sheva in Glasgow, stepping off the bench to steady the ship for Celtic after they had seen a 3-0 lead cut to 3-2 by the Israelis, helping to pave the way to qualification for the lucrative group stage.
If those first few weeks at the club had been something of a slow-burn for Dembele, with many of his appearances coming as a substitute, his Celtic career well and truly caught fire in September. A hat-trick in his first Old Firm game, as Rangers were thumped 5-1 at Celtic Park, earned him the enduring affection of the club’s support, before a truly dynamic performance and two goals in the 3-3 Champions League draw with Manchester City saw him announce himself in spectacular style well beyond the borders of the Scottish domestic scene.
The speculation linking him with myriad English Premier League and leading European clubs kicked in with a vengeance and has scarcely abated since, reaching fever pitch on the final day of the January transfer window when his day trip to London to see a specialist about a knee problem coincided with Chelsea’s mooted interest in taking him to Stamford Bridge. As he has done all season, Dembele was unfazed by all the fuss.
“It is easy for me not to be distracted,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’m a very calm type of guy and I don’t really let this type of thing get in my head. I just focus on enjoying my football at Celtic and I’m very happy to be here.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Dembele. There have been spells, such as a run of 12 games without a goal from open play towards the end of 2016, when his form was decidedly patchy. He remains very much a work in progress, something he fully appreciates himself and which allows him to concur with Rodgers’ assertion that Celtic will offer the best environment for his continued development for some time yet.
Dembele once again illustrated his capacity to shine when the spotlight is at its most glaring, smashing home his fifth goal in three Old Firm appearances when Celtic came from behind to win 2-1 at Ibrox on Hogmanay. Sunday’s rapid-fire hat-trick in Perth, completed with a flourish at the end of that remarkable 25-pass team move, has surely set him up for prolific final few months of the season when he is likely to be vying with team-mate Scott Sinclair for the Player of the Year honours.
Celtic will continue their quest for the domestic treble when they welcome Premiership strugglers Inverness Caledonian Thistle to Glasgow in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup this Saturday. It is difficult to imagine Dembele & Co failing to stretch Celtic’s record unbeaten domestic run since the start of this campaign to 30 matches.
“We don’t have easy games,” insists Dembele. “St Johnstone showed that on Sunday. It is up to us – we have to give 100 per cent and give everything to perform first of all. If we do that like we have done all season, there will be no problem.”