Erik Sviatchenko knew things were likely to go his side’s way when he sensed Celtic growing stronger in the second half of Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final win over Rangers.
Such superior fitness should stand them in good stead as they prepare to face an arduous run of three consecutive away trips, to Dingwall, Aberdeen and Monchengladbach, in the space of seven days.
Their ability to win the physical battles was a marked difference to last season when the Dane candidly admits the players’ fitness fell below what was required. Significantly, it meant Celtic were always struggling to overcome a Rangers side who out-ran them in April’s Scottish Cup semi-final. While the game finished 2-2 after extra-time, it was the view of most that Celtic had been fortunate to take the tie to penalties, where they lost 5-4. It proved a different story on Sunday, when Celtic kept going until the end of the 90 minutes, snatching a late winner through Moussa Dembele, pictured inset.
“To be in physically good shape is just alpha omega in football,” said Sviatchenko. “You just need to be at the highest level if you want to compete in different tournaments. We are competing in four tournaments at the moment. If we want to be able to do good things in different tournaments you need to have good physical shape. We proved we had that on Sunday.”
Asked why this wasn’t the case last season, under the management team of Ronny Deila and John Collins, Sviatchenko was not so sure.
“That is a difficult question, I can’t answer why,” he said. “I came in January and I did all I could and all the boys did all they could. But sometimes there has to be a change before players can get back their A game. That happened and now everyone is playing the best.”
The Dane admitted Rangers’ fitness levels out-stripped Celtic’s in their one clash last season. But this has not been so this season, with Celtic ahead 6-1 on aggregate after two meetings. “We proved that it [Rangers being fitter] wasn’t the case this time,” he said. “We have moved on. We are a different team and we play different football as well.”
Celtic are undoubtedly sharper in attack now that they can call upon the services of Dembele, who also scored a hat-trick in last month’s 5-1 win over Rangers. Now there are calls for manager Brendan Rodgers to unleash both Dembele and Leigh Griffiths in attack after they combined so well at the weekend for Celtic’s winning goal.
Despite scoring eight times in ten games for Celtic at the start of the season, Griffiths has been left kicking his heels on the sidelines of late, offered cameos and little more.
Rodgers prefers to play Scott Sinclair in a wide role with Dembele through the middle at the moment, but, with such a demanding schedule, this could be set to change as quickly as tomorrow night in Dingwall. Sviatchenko would feel for the Ross County defenders were they to face double trouble in the form of Dembele and Griffiths.
“It would probably be my worst nightmare but again it’s up to the manager to see where the possibilities are,” said the Dane.
“It may be he would like to see that one day but I’m just focusing on how well we are playing right now. If we want to play with two or three it doesn’t really matter, it’s about who is prepared to do that extra little bit of hard work.”
Dembele, for one, is keen to do exactly that. The striker proved what a skilful player he is with a cute back-heel finish for Celtic’s winner on Sunday but he is also prepared to mix it. Sviatchenko, a sturdy specimen himself, relishes their physical battles in training.
“He’s a big guy and he’s tough,” he said. “Sometimes he can be a bit arrogant but in a good way and suddenly he’s just there. But I’m quite a physical guy so sometimes we can have some good battles and that’s good.”
Sviatchenko is just relieved they are on the same side more often than not after Dembele turned down other offers and elected to go to Celtic to further his career.
“I think it shows a high level from Celtic to have a high-level player like that, but also Moussa did well in how he was thinking about his next step,” said Sviatchenko. “He maybe could have gone to a club down south in a better league but he’s showed he wants to improve and be better. That’s the right thing to do here.
“The expectation is much bigger here than maybe at other clubs but he has the belief from the manager and all the club around him and that gives you confidence to evolve here.
“He has great potential and he is only 20 years old. For Moussa, it’s about keeping that high level every time, even though for young players they sometimes drop their performances. He’s proven he can maintain that high level.
“For him, the team and everyone around Celtic it’s good to have a striker like that.”
Sviatchenko would have been rivalling Dembele’s goal-scoring prowess against Rangers had his header not been harshly disallowed on Sunday. The Dane scored against Rangers at Hampden in April and was disappointed to be thwarted by the referee’s decision on this occasion.
“It would have been my second goal, but it’s alright,” he said. “It doesn’t matter now. We won the game. It would have been nice to have that on my CV, to have scored twice against Rangers. But it doesn’t really matter now. I am just happy that Moussa back-heeled through a ‘double meg’.”