The arresting post-match comments by Brendan Rodgers on unused substitute Moussa Dembele instantly shifted the focus from what his team had just produced in winning handsomely, as expected, to set up a home tie against Partick Thistle in next month’s Scottish Cup fifth round.
The Celtic manager declared that the constant swirl of transfer speculation had resulted in the Frenchman not being “the player he was” and, effectively, not then a player he could trust to be on it against part-timers Brechin City.
Even if judgments obviously require to be delivered sparingly owing to the modesty of the opposition, in contrast the team the Irishman selected for the return to action following the three-week winter shutdown looked much more like themselves than as fatigue gripped them before the break.
Olivier Ntcham – who scored with a thumping header – and Scott Brown dominated in midfield, while, across the middle, Scott Sinclair, James Forrest and Callum McGregor exhibited pep and purpose. Goals too, in the case of Sinclair and Forrest, the Scotland winger netting in 121 seconds without Brechin having had a touch. Striker Odsonne Edouard put in a shift – as did Kieran Tierney – and was rewarded with a late goal, Dedryck Boyata also popping up to pop in a goal with his bonce. In turning provider with two clever through-balls, right-back Mikael Lustig also had a satisfying afternoon.
McGregor is in no doubt that Celtic can hit their stride again in the fashion they did after the shutdown 12 months ago to tear up their way to a treble. Especially in the case of last year’s player of the year Sinclair, whose 15 goals haven’t been delivered with the panache he produced in a superb first Celtic season.
“You could see throughout the team that freshness is back. Scotty played a lot of games, we all did,” said McGregor. “Pretty much a year and a half playing every single game. He’s got that freshness back, he’s had that break. It was a great finish from him.”
Including Brechin, Celtic’s post-break schedule will bring 11 games in the next five-and-a-half weeks, with tomorrow the Scottish champions taking the short trip across the city to face Partick Thistle. They will be in action every midweek owing to the forthcoming Europa League ties against Zenit St Petersburg.
“We’re used to that, two or three games a week,” McGregor said. “We’ve just come off the back of a break so we are ready to go and enjoy the challenge. We played a lot of games; it was high demand in the Champions League. The break was good, both for the legs and mentally too. We needed it.”
McGregor is also used to No 10s being brought to the club to ramp up competition for him. Rodgers has said it is a creative type he is after in this window with Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic and Patrick Roberts all currently sidelined with injury. The Celtic manager maintained that the club will do business before 1 February, with new arrivals restricted to centre-back Marvin Compper – Lewis Morgan remaining on loan at St Mirren for the rest of this season after the £300,000 deal struck with the Paisley club.
“There’s not been much happening, it’s probably the quietest one I’ve seen so far but there is still time,” McGregor said. “The manager will be looking. For us we have to keep doing it on the pitch and in training. I think every season I’ve been here they have signed an attacking midfielder or a midfielder. That’s just part of life of being at a big club. You have to keep going and keep proving yourself.”