For the first time in Brendan Rodgers’ two-and-a-bit-years in charge, this week brings the clear and present danger of his Celtic side taking a significant backwards step. Problems at centre-back are at the heart of the matter for the Scottish champions.
The focus fell on Rodgers’ decision to field the young defensive pairing of Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer following the loss of a desperately cheap goal in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at home to AEK Athens. A scoreline that, despite Rodgers’ unquenchable belief, has severely dented the chances of the Irishman hauling the club through a third straight Champions League qualifying campaign and into the group stage.
Ajer, booked at Parkhead, is now suspended for the second leg while Dedryck Boyata, pictured, the most experienced centre-back available to Rodgers, is unlikely to play amid uncertainty around the future of the Belgium defender.
If the unlikely is to be achieved in Athens on Tuesday, and Celtic are to fashion a scoreline that allows them to make it through the second leg of their third round qualifier, then Rodgers will likely have to rely on Hendry and Jozo Simunovic.
John McGinn has become a cause celebre at Celtic. Failure to land the former Hibs midfielder who elected to sign for Aston Villa following a summer transfer saga may have exposed fractures in Rodgers’ relationship with the club’s suits over transfer policy. However, the 23-year-old would not even have been eligible to feature for Celtic in Champions League qualifiers. The more pressing issue is the absence of any alternatives to Hendry, in particular, a player whose presence in such pivotal encounters has become a source of disquiet for a support unconvinced by his suitability to make such a leap only six months on from his arrival from Dundee.
He has been required to make that jump because Boyata, who patently wanted Celtic to accept the £9 million offer made by Fulham for him ahead of the English transfer deadline passing on Thursday, has been unable to be considered. A fact ascribed to his returning to Glasgow only a fortnight ago following his World Cup exertions plus his apparent desire to leave.
The route to England might be closed to the player in this window, but it will remain open in most of continental Europe until 31 August, although the Italian deadline is Friday.
“Listen, I’ve had calls personally from Italy for him,” the Celtic manager admitted. “So, there’s still a market for moving after the Premier League [window] closed.
“I think it is also that not all these guys want to go to England. This is a boy from Belgium who has been what, 11 years more or less in the British game. These are intelligent guys who are multilingual and they are happy to go to Italy, happy to go to Spain. The Premier League isn’t the be all and end all. It is where the money is, yes, but there are also big clubs and money in other countries. The footballing world is a small world now. There will be options other than England for him if he decides to move on at some point.
“He did great in the World Cup and that’s noticed around the world. Looking at his situation, people would see that as an attraction. Remember also the type of player he is; he’s 27, he’s six foot three, he’s quick, he’s strong, he can head it…and he’s actually a good guy. So, it’s a good profile.”
It’s a profile desiring a bigger stage. Boyata has shown no enthusiasm for signing a new contract and his current deal can now be measured in months.
With Boyata out of commission and Ajer banned, Hendry becomes a key man for Celtic, and his manager understandably sought to support who has become something of a whipping boy for the fans. The 23-year-old will be a crucial component against AEK, and Rodgers damned Simunovic in defending his selection alongside Ajer in midweek. “Without Dedryck, they are our best central defenders,” he said pointedly.
“It’s just about experience, and how do you get experience? Jack Hendry is getting better each game. But how does he get experience? He needs to be exposed to it. He’s got a really good profile, he’s quick, he’s strong. When he’s asked, he’s really dominant in the air. He’s finding a level now that he’s never played at. I think he’s going to step up over the next six months to a year and be a very good player. Like when Kris Ajer first came in, he needs time. But I think he’s developing into a very good player.”
Hendry is being forced to learn in an unforgiving environment. Audible disquiet emanated from the stands nearly every time he sought to carry the ball out of defence the other night.
“I think he has been admirable in how he has coped with it,” Rodgers said. “Of course he will make mistakes, he is only human and he is finding his feet at this level. But if we didn’t have Jack Hendry we would have even bigger problems. He has stood up to it. He doesn’t shirk from the ball, he doesn’t shirk from his defending and he is a boy who is going through his first exposure to a level which is new to him. Will he get better? Absolutely.
“He never misses a day’s training. He really wants to improve and he really wants to get better and it is just time. He is really out there under the spotlight just now and I think the kid is coping with it very well. Will he make mistakes? He will but you have got to support him and help develop him until he becomes that guy who has played enough games to understand the level.”
Rodgers remains confident that Celtic can pull off what would represent the outstanding feat in Champions League qualifiers under his management at Celtic.
“It’s a huge challenge for us in Athens,” he said. “It gets harder each season. It shows you where we’re at, in terms of coefficient and rating, that we’ve had to go in at round one while AEK have only just entered it now. I go there personally without fear. They’re a good side, but I think we showed for large parts of the game that we were a better team.
“There was an intensity in pressing while some of our football, and the level we played at at this stage of the season, was very good. We travel there knowing we can defend strong. We’ve done it before. We went to Anderlecht [two years ago in the group stage] and people think we can’t get a result but we win comfortably [3-0].
“A scoreless draw after Rosenborg [in the first leg of a qualifier in Glasgow last year] and people are thinking ‘bloody hell’. Yet we go out there, play really well and get a result. We weren’t so good at home against Monchengladbach [in a 2-0 group stage defeat two seasons ago], but we go over to Germany and put on a really good performance [drawing 1-1]. So we’ll be ready for Athens and throw everything at it to get a result.”
And if that falls short, the recriminations will be thrown in all directions.