Celtic produced what Brendan Rodgers called “a professional performance” to blitz Brechin City and breeze into the fifth round of the Scottish Cup. The fact Moussa Dembele did not contribute to that on an afternoon in which Rodgers fielded his strongest available side the Irishman intimated afterwards was no mere coincidence.
Across this transfer window, the 21-year-old Frenchman has been constantly linked with English Premier League clubs – Crystal Palace, Brighton and Everton, largely – without any making the £20m bid that might trigger actual activity. The speculation surrounding Dembele yesterday led Rodgers to make the stark admission that he feels rendering the forward inactive is best for his side. With his team exhibiting focus, freshness and a sense of purpose on their return to action after a three-week winter break, the Celtic manager does not believe those facets can be guaranteed from the player who was such a sensation as he exploded on to the Scottish football scene last season with 32 goals – he’s netted just eight in this campaign.
“There have been a couple of enquiries for him [Dembele] and I think it is clear he has not been quite the same as he’s been for over a year or so,” Rodgers said. “My job as the manager is always to protect the club and ensure everyone who plays is totally focused.
“He’s a good kid, has done great for us but there has always been speculation around him and I think for young players it can be difficult at times.
“This window, it is a difficult window for players. They are unsure, especially in his case. But he has no issue, there is no problem. I could have played him today but for the team and for the dynamic of everything I wanted to put young Odsonne [Edouard] in.
“Moussa is training, he is working and nothing happens between now and the end of January then between then and the end of the season we will see that player really focussed and fighting and running and working for the team.”
The men Rodgers sent out certainly did not lack purpose or effervescence and inside 121 seconds – without the visitors’ touching the ball – were a goal up through James Forrest. He swept in from eight yards after Scott Sinclair waltzed down the left flank and cut the ball back from the byline.
Darren Dods admitted his side – without a win in the Championship – could hardly have endured a worse start than falling two behind ten minutes later. That goal was the product of an over-ambitious forward pass from James Dale inside his own box, which Callum McGregor intercepted and knocked into the path of Sinclair, who beat Brechin keeper Graeme Smith at his near post.
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There could only be a degree of relief for a commendably strong Brechin support when their team actually managed a break into the Celtic half shortly afterwards, greeted by high-pitched roars from the visiting section – testament to the family outing enjoyed by the Angus day-trippers.
But they would have known further punishment was to come.
It arrived just after the restart when Mikael Lustig hung up a cross from the right that allowed Celtic’s midfield orchestrator Olivier Ntcham to power in an unstoppable header. Celtic’s aerial threat brought no.4 in the 56th minute when Dedryck Boyata met a McGregor corner and headed it wide of Smith. In the closing minutes, Edouard completed the scoring – after Brechin substitute Issac Layne had caused some anxiety for the Celtic backline – when he met a neat through-ball from Lustig on the half-turn, and angled a low effort into the far corner.
Rodgers, who expects to have the injury-sidelined Leigh Griffiths back for Tuesday’s Premiership clash at Partick Thistle, is cagey on new signings in the ten days before the window closes next week. “It is important to stay calm,” he said. “The key was to strengthen in this window and I believe we will do that. If you are trying to bring in a specific type of player it takes a little more time.”