It was only a couple of weeks ago that serious questions were being asked as to how Celtic would cope without Scott Brown. Now, following a goal bonanza across a series of domestic wins and a Europa League victory in midweek over Leipzig that Brendan Rodgers acknowledged as his best at home in Europe, the legitimate question being posed is how the Celtic captain can be co-opted back into the side.
Callum McGregor’s success in the quarterback style orchestrator role, coupled with the emergence of Ryan Christie and re-emergence of Scott Sinclair, has provided the Scottish champions with a balance and propulsion that is allowing them to equal anything they produced in their invincible treble season of two campaigns ago. Indeed, it is all the more remarkable that could scale such heights without not just Brown but another forceful midfielder presence in Olivier Ntcham, whose agreement of a new four-year deal the other day came as he has also been sidelined with injury.
Rodgers was asked the other day whether his on-field general in the 33-year-old Brown would have a job on his hands to regain his place once back to full health, expected following the international break that begins following their trip to Livingston this lunchtime.
His answer suggested that a changing of the guard won’t be coming any time soon but that he has a depth to his list of deputies that he was so exasperated at not obtaining during the summer transfer activity.
“We want all the boys back,” said the Irishman. “But it’s what you want as a coach from the guys who have come into the team. Scott Sinclair looks back to his level, and Ryan [Christie] coming in has been like signing a new player, so it’s brilliant.
“But I don’t forget what guys have given me for two and a half years. Scott Brown is an amazing player, a big personality, so it will be great when he gets back. Olivier Ntcham is a top operator too. But what this shows is that the squad now, you can’t come off your game. It was a collectively good performance [against Leipzig] and equally pleasing how we did it against a crack team.
“We have a bunch of players playing at a really high level and the guys behind that are going to have to work really hard to affect that. But we need them all. Now they are setting the standard.”
There was a feeling that Celtic had plateaued as a team nine month ago with the core then at the club. Certainly, Odsonne Edouard’s progression in becoming a goalscorer of immense power and poise, and the assured presence of Leicester City on-loan centre-back Filip Benkovic, have brought fresh impetus. And raised standards. However, such as James Forrest, Tom Rogic, Kieran Tierney and McGregor have also shaken off early season struggles to bring renewed vigour to their performances.
Instrumental in that is Rodgers appearing to have rediscovered his zest. It had threatened to be compromised by the disharmony that developed between him and the club’s powerbrokers over acquiring signing targets in the early months of the campaign.
“That’s your job as manager and coach, to provide a stimulus for players to keep having the hunger,” he said. “Part of that was to bring players in, we wanted to do that but it didn’t happen. Because you can be as good a coach as you want, but sometimes the best stimulus for players is competition. However that’s OK – let’s keep working to how we want to play, and as you saw against Leipzig, they’ve been fantastic.”
As they chase a sixth straight league win in West Lothian, Rodgers has no concerns about their ability to keep motoring in switching to such a comparatively low octane encounter following the high enjoyed in the souped-up atmosphere of Celtic Park on Thursday. “Whether we’ve had good bad or indifferent results in Europe, domestically these boys have been a credit to the club. they’ve never switched the engine off. We never allow them to because the next game is the most important one.
“Of course it won’t be as free flowing and slick as it was against Leipzig because we’re on an astroturf pitch against a team who’ve started the season great. it’ll be a tough game – but we’ll be ready for it.”