Even the most mundane victories can’t seem to pass for Celtic without some sort of landmark being brought up. There was little to recommend the contest in Dingwall save for the efficient marshalling of Brendan Rodgers’ side by Ross County. Until Leigh Griffiths had his say, that is.
You would never mistake the Global Energy Stadium on a bitingly cold November day for a jumping Hampden on a June afternoon, but Griffiths’ free-kick prowess proved a commonality. So did sunshine, though in very different ways.
The low rays of winter proved highly significant in the 26-year-old striker bagging the 100th Scottish top-flight goal of his career. Griffiths’ 78th-minute matchwinner – which followed his introduction as a 61st-minute substitute and gave him his first dead-ball goal since his double against England – was owed, in part, to Aaron McCarey being blinded by the sunlight.
Initially, it seemed the 25-yard curler didn’t show the keeper in, what might be termed, the best of lights. Griffiths put plenty of air in his scooped effort that drifted over the defensive wall but it seemed to travel sedately enough for McCarey to scramble across. Cutely, the Celtic striker knew conditions would make it far from straightforward for the County man to claw it away from the top left-hand corner of his net.
“Craig [Gordon] said at half-time if I got on to try to have a shot because the sun will be in the keeper’s eyes,” revealed Griffiths, “so I knew if I got the ball on target it had a good chance of going in. I’ve had a lot of stick for not getting anything on target since the England game so it’s good to finally put one in the back of the net. It’s a big victory for us.”
The goal also ensured that Celtic’s 64-game domestic unbeaten run would not have a first blank within it, with a Scottish side still to prevent a Rodgers team scoring in 63 attempts. Griffiths attributed that to having “goalscorers all over the pitch”, and sometimes on the bench. That is where the Scotland forward has found himself more often than not of late following the reanimation of Moussa Dembele as goal plunderer extraordinaire.
Griffiths understands that the Frenchman is in pole position, but is patently not oblivious to the fact that Rodgers could spread the love around this week with Wednesday’s Champions League excursion to play Paris Saint-Germain giving way to the League Cup final against Motherwell on Sunday.
Griffiths agreed his latest example of free-kick flamboyance won’t have done his chances any harm of pushing for a start in Paris while at the same time acknowledging that Dembele “has been on fire” – the 21-year-old also producing pyrotechnics for France, with a 12-minute hat-trick for his country’s under-21s this week.
“If it wasn’t for being injured last week [with a calf strain that caused him to miss his club’s game against St Johnstone then Scotland’s friendly with the Netherlands] maybe I could have got a goal or two then, but I’ve been working with the physios to get back as quickly as I can and today showed it.
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“We’ve got a big week and I think the manager will take that into consideration. We’ve got a cup final at the end of the week so he will have difficult choices to make.”
Rodgers, while praising his team’s “mentality”, attributed his players’ lack of fluency to a “poor”, bobbly pitch and the dispersion of his players in the international break. But he reserved special praise for Nir Bitton, who lined up in central defence again as the fragile Jozo Simunovic returned to the bench.
“This guy gets slated for not being a centre-half but I haven’t seen one better outside of Celtic,” Rodgers said of Bitton. “He’s heading it, he’s defending, he’s aggressive, and then he goes and he can play. I thought he was outstanding today.”
Asked if Bitton’s display gave him comfort ahead of the daunting PSG fixture, the manager added: “I’ve had comfort with him, I know everyone else hasn’t. For me, that’s why I continue to play him. He’s only going to get better in the position if he needs to play there.”
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