Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has praised striker Leigh Griffiths for his bravery and astute judgment in pulling out of the Scotland squad for the recent defeats by Israel and Portugal, claiming the 28-year-old acted in the long-term interest of all concerned.
Griffiths has received criticism from some quarters for perceived petulance after national team manager Alex McLeish had, perhaps unnecessarily, declared that Hearts’ Steven Naismith was his first-choice in the wake of the latter’s goal against Albania last month.
However, Griffiths has looked overweight and a yard short this season and Rodgers backed his player’s choice to concentrate on achieving optimum fitness at his club before re-entering the international fray – although, ironically, he will not be available to face second-placed Hibernian at Parkhead today due to illness.
“In top-level sport, in international football and at a top club, you have no business being on a pitch if you are not physically right,” said the Irishman. “And I have said that since the first day I came in here; you have no business being on a football pitch. You have supporters who give their lives to follow their team and follow their country [with many] not earning anywhere near the money that footballers will make.
“The bare minimum requirement is that you are physically fit. Leigh was brave enough to recognise that he was not.
“Gary Caldwell said recently that playing for Scotland while he wasn’t fully fit shortened his career. The idea for a player is to keep the engine running for as long as you can. That’s about fitness and mentality, consistency and resilience.
“In modern football, it’s not just about scoring goals. If you can’t press the game at the top of the pitch because you can’t run, it has a knock-on effect for the team.
“Leigh spoke to me before it happened and I told him if he feels that strongly about it then he had to pick up the phone to Alex. He did that and then it was a case of doing something about it.
“I don’t cry on about it all the time but we have a top-level sports science team here that measure and monitor and a coaching programme that will develop players in every aspect – technically, tactically, physically, mentally. If you throw yourself at it there is every chance you will improve.
“We create the environment and 99 per cent of players want to improve, they want to get better. If you are one of them then you will get better because the environment allows you to do that and it’s something that Leigh is recognising.
“Has the penny dropped? We’ll see; it’s always revealed on the pitch. He’s not available for tomorrow, though. He got injured early on in the break and now he’s ill. It was a slight issue with his calf, so we shall see how that goes.”
Meanwhile, Filip Benkovic, the 21-year-old Croatian Under-21 centre-back who signed a season-long loan deal in August three weeks after joining Leicester City from Dinamo Zagreb for £13 million, has revealed he could return to the King Power Stadium during the winter break.
“I signed until the end of the season but there is a clause in the contract which means that Leicester can bring me back in January,” he said.
“So far I have spoken with some people at the club but they must wait and see what their situation is in the winter – maybe they will sell some players, I don’t know.
“Because of that I may have to wait until the last minute of the transfer window to find out what is happening – just like the last one.”
For now, though, Benkovic expects Hibernian, the Premiership’s highest scorers, to provide the champions with a real test this afternoon.
“These games make you better – football is about big matches like this and we are looking forward to it,” he said.
“Hibs are in front of us in the table so it is down to us to catch them and move back to the top of the table. The rest of the players have been speaking about Hibs in the dressing room. We respect them a lot and they’re a very good team.”