Twenty five minutes into the Scottish Cup semi-final, the fourth official’s board went up and brought Dedryck Boyata’s afternoon to a premature end. At the time it looked like he’d been unceremoniously hooked before half-time after enduring a nightmarish opening quarter to the Old Firm derby. Rangers were a goal to the good and he’d been all over the place at the back. We would later discover the defender was carrying an injury, one which would keep him out the rest of the campaign. It didn’t particularly matter to Celtic fans, though. Injured or not, Boyata had never looked convincing in a Celtic jersey and whatever the reason for his leaving the field, they just wanted to see the back of him.
While Boyata recuperated, Brendan Rodgers took over the reins and did what few expected: he gave Ronny Deila’s underachievers a chance to start over. Most have grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Mikael Lustig has returned to the player he was before his incessant injury problems, James Forrest hasn’t looked this sprightly since he was a teenager, Stuart Armstrong is developing into a Scotland calibre player, and captain Scott Brown has rediscovered his mojo. Then there’s the likes of Kieran Tierney and Tom Rogic; great players who’ve taken it up a notch under the new boss. Some haven’t taken advantage of the clean slate, namely Efe Ambrose, but at least he was given a chance. Everyone was given a chance. Everyone, that is, except Dedryck Boyata.
On Friday night, the Belgian’s time out in the cold ended with a surprising, some would even say shocking, berth in the starting XI against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. Before judging the defender we should remember that he’s not played first-team football of any nature in seven months. It must also be noted Rodgers’ Midas touch does not immediately rub off on Celtic’s players. Remember Lincoln Red Imps? It takes time to build a team and a player up. However, though it’s important not to be overly harsh, it’s unlikely that Kolo Toure, Jozo Simunovic or Erik Sviatchenko would lose any sleep over his performance.
Kilmarnock set themselves up to crowd the midfield, with the narrow four ahead of screener Gary Dicker looking to press Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong at any opportunity, forcing the ball back to the Celtic centre-backs. Playing it out from defence has never been one of Boyata’s strong suits, and that’s without seven months worth of rust. Twice in the first half he misplaced passes attempted for Brown, each time putting his side in trouble. Kilmarnock’s best chance of the match came from one such situation, when Flo Bojaj headed over Greg Taylor’s cross.
He did make a couple of important defensive interventions in the middle third of the game, including a great stand-up tackle on Rory McKenzie looking to charge into the penalty area four minutes prior to the Celtic goal. And although he would lose his way once again for a six-minute period starting with a clumsy foul on McKenzie 25 yards from goal, he would play a match-winning intervention right at the death with a loose ball from set-piece threatening to cause panic inside the Celtic six-yard box. Whether that’s his last meaningful act in a green and white hooped jersey remains to be seen. If it is, at least it’s a positive one, and certainly beats jogging off at Hampden with jeers ringing in his ears.
With such strong competition ahead of him in the starting XI, it’s difficult to imagine another scenario playing out other than a swift exit for Boyata in January. However, he could do worse than to stick around and learn a few things from Parkhead’s magician.