Olivier Ntcham emerges as key man in Celtic midfield hub

Like many of the players in the Celtic squad this season, Olivier Ntcham would be described as a '˜work in progress' by '¨manager Brendan Rodgers.

The French midfielder may be the most expensive buy of Rodgers’ tenure so far but the £4.5 million capture from Manchester City only celebrated his 22nd birthday earlier this month.

Ntcham was at the hub of an impressive Celtic display against Zenit St Petersburg last week which saw a starting line-up with an average age of 25 earn the 1-0 lead the Scottish champions will take into the second leg of the Europa League last 32 tie in Russia tomorrow night.

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If 37-year-old goalkeeper Dorus de Vries is taken out of the equation, then that figure would be significantly reduced among the outfield players, with Ntcham joined by the likes of Kristoffer Ajer (19), Kieran Tierney (20), Eboue Kouassi (20) and Moussa Dembele (21).

Celtic's Olivier Ntcham impressed in the first leg against Zenit. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

It is a team which Ntcham believes is growing up quickly together in footballing terms as they seek to extend their European campaign beyond this week.

“Although we have many young players, I feel there is maturity when we are on the pitch,” observed Ntcham.

“The manager has said that there is growth in the team and I think that is true. If we manage to get through against Zenit, I think it would be a really big achievement for all of us – for the manager, for the club and also for all of the players.

“Game after game, you see players like Kouassi getting better and we are seeing what he is able to do for us.

Celtic's Olivier Ntcham impressed in the first leg against Zenit. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

“Moussa is a great player for us and I hope for him and for the team that he can score a goal in Russia. He was holding the ball up for us a lot in the first leg and it must be difficult for defenders to play against a big and strong striker like him.

“Moussa can always score and play well, we know that, but it’s not just down to one player. We all must try to do things for the team and that’s what we did against Zenit.

“When you achieve your targets, you are always happy and that is what we want to do this week. The second leg is going to be tough, but to get through is our aim and that is what we will fight for.”

Ntcham has already made an important European contribution for Celtic in his debut season at the club, scoring the nerve-steadying goal against Astana in Kazakhstan which halted a potential capitulation in the second leg of the Champions League play-off round tie. It was one of seven goals he has scored in 34 appearances for Celtic so far.

While defensive midfield duties may be his priority tomorrow night at the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, Ntcham is hopeful of opportunities to display the attacking side of his game.

“It is up to the manager how we play in the second leg, that’s always the way,” he added. “But if I was the coach, I’d say we should play the way we always play. We always try to score goals and that is our way.

“We don’t just have to try and stay in behind and defend for the whole second leg waiting until the game is finished. My thinking is that it is best to play our own way, like we are used to doing. All of the team enjoyed the first leg because we played good. Defensively, the team was good and we managed to get the goal which was needed and now we take that to Russia. I think the coach set us up well and it stopped Zenit from making many chances. It was enjoyable to play in the system.

“I don’t know how Zenit will be different or if they will be different in the second leg. I don’t know if they will be stronger than the first leg. Maybe they will change some things for this game. Of course, they have now played a competitive game after their winter break and, when you play more and more games, you become stronger and you become more confident.”

Temperatures of around -11 are forecast for Thursday in St Petersburg but Ntcham is looking forward to returning to Russia for the first time since he was part of the Manchester City side which defeated CSKA Moscow 2-0 in a Uefa Youth League fixture four years ago.

“That was a good game and it’s always nice to win, so it’s a good memory,” said Ntcham. “It was a little bit cold back then as well, but I liked it.”