Brendan Rodgers has leapt to the defence of Nir Bitton, insisting Celtic might have missed out on a place in the Champions League group stage if not for the efforts of the Israeli midfielder.
Bitton, who has dropped back into a central defensive role due to a series of injuries in that department of Rodgers’ squad, was the target of criticism for his display in the 4-3 defeat in Astana on Tuesday in the second leg of Celtic’s play-off round tie.
Celtic trailed 4-1 at one stage but progressed 8-4 on aggregate to earn a bounty of around £30 million for participation in the group stage. They were the first goals the Scottish champions had conceded in six qualifying matches and Rodgers is astounded by the condemnation of Bitton, pictured. “The stuff that’s been said about Nir has been absolutely incredible,” said the Celtic boss. “I saw people talk about what we should have had [in the team] and blah, blah, blah – forgetting we had three of our main central defenders [Dedryck Boyata, Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic] injured. I don’t have a magic wand to just spring up a centre-half.
“I didn’t see too many people proposing solutions when you have a crisis in the team like we had. We had to find one and we defended over the course of the qualifiers with the ball. We had to keep long periods of possession and in order to do that, we played Bitton at the back. I hear and I read and I see the guy getting absolutely killed, which I find unbelievable. It is a midfield player playing at the back. People are talking about us taking a £30m risk – but we might not be here for the £30m if it wasn’t for Nir.
“After Kilmarnock last Saturday, he was in a protective boot for two days. He travelled to Astana with it and took it off just before he went into training the night before the game. He was suffering. But he put himself out there for the team and did the best he possibly could in that situation and over the course of the qualification. He is still in pain but this is a guy who shows the spirit of the team and so I feel the need to defend him.
“We know Nir is not a centre-half. But he is a warrior. He was brilliant for us in that qualifying campaign and will continue to be a very important member of our squad.”