PERHAPS the most noteworthy aspect of events at Celtic Park on Saturday afternoon was sandwiched between the football. Trumpeting the loan signing of 21-year-old Manchester United defender Tyler Blackett, by introducing him to supporters with the obligatory scarf-waving, is evidence of a club drawing in its horns.
The move for Blackett, and the £500,000 bid for 20-year-old Inverness Caledonian Thistle midfielder Ryan Christie, have been thus far the Scottish champions’ response to their Champions League elimination at the hands of Malmö last week. Yet, such targets are hardly the answer to what manager Ronny Deila has said handicaps his team when faced with assignments such as the one in the Swedbank Stadium last Tuesday that caused them to wilt excruciatingly.
He feels they were undone by a paucity of players with experience of dealing with such situations and made the analogies of not wanting lambs to have only one shepherd, and of kids brought into this world needing guardians.
Blackett, with 11 senior league appearances at Old Trafford and a couple of short loan deals with Birmingham City and Blackpool, is a young player looking for direction rather than being certain to provide it. Deila effectively admitted after the win over St Johnstone that Blackett, who can play left-back and centre-back, will be deployed in central defence if Virgil van Dijk departs for Southampton before the summer transfer window closes tomorrow evening.
If reports are correct that Ronald Koeman’s club are prepared to pay £11.5 million for Van Dijk, his long-desired move to the English Premier League is certain.
Without Van Dijk, Celtic’s defence while Mikael Lustig remains sidelined is likely to be composed of three players – summer signings Dedryck Boyata, Manchester United right-back Saidy Janko and his former team-mate Blackett – who simply do not have the experience of being big players in high-pressure European fixtures and, in Emilio Izaguirre, someone who does but clearly is not rated by Deila.
Therein lies the rub. Celtic do still possess a clutch of performers who have scaled the heights in cross-border competition, with Scott Brown, Efe Ambrose, Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons and Izaguirre excelling as the club reached the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012. Brown apart, though, these players are no longer pivots, while those that have taken their places have yet to prove they can similarly prosper in continental competition. That, indeed, could be a tall order for them even in the forthcoming Europa League group campaign, with Ajax and Fenerbahce lying in wait.
The presence of former Manchester United heavyweights Robin van Persie and Nani in the Turks’ line-up at least will mean that Blackett and Janko know what they will be up against. Swiss under-21 international Janko was jokingly asked if he knew the attackers’ secrets. “Some of them maybe,” he smiled. “They are superstars, but we have superstars too,” he also offered boldly.
In Blackett, Janko has no doubt that Celtic will have a year’s use of a star in the making. A player who, he has no doubt, can be a replacement for Van Dijk. “He can do that,” the full-back said. “I couldn’t tell you if the left-hand side or in the centre was his best. I’m sure he will do well. I think he’s just a great addition to the team because he brings pace and he brings power, and that’s what we need.”
Blackett sought intelligence from Janko on Celtic, but not reassurance from “a good friend” with whom he “always chills”.
“Last week he texted me and asked me about the club,” said Janko. “I told him good things. I think it’s definitely a big transfer but Celtic is a big club so it’s not a surprise. He was enthusiastic straight away. I didn’t have to convince him or anything. ”
Janko believes that, despite the disappointment of Malmö, Blackett will be coming into a smooth set-up.
As for Saturday’s events, Janko admitted Celtic did not have the best “first 20 minutes”. A Boyata own-goal in that time exemplified their sloppiness.
Leigh Griffiths and Thomas Rogic stood apart from the slackness in exhibiting a hunger to make things happen that ultimately proved decisive. But while Rogic put Celtic in front seconds before the interval with an excellent run and finish from the left touchline, Griffiths’ eighth goal of the season that restored parity within seven minutes of his team going behind was the product of a fortunate, bagatelle-style strike – a shot from the edge of the area deflecting off both David Wotherspoon and Tam Scobbie to beat Alan Mannus.
Mulgrew, on for Brown after the Scotland captain was withdrawn with a minor knock that will not prejudice his involvement in the country’s crucial Euro 2016 double header, sealed the points with a header from six yards after a Commons corner that Van Dijk rose to and sent into the danger area.
That moment will probably represent the final recorded act of the Dutch defender in a Celtic shirt. The 24-year-old has given good value in the two years since he moved from Groningen in a £2.3m deal. There have been notable flaws on the European stage. These, though, may become even more pronounced without him.