For Celtic, the Champions League is everything this season. Having completed a clean sweep of domestic honours just a few months ago, winning a treble of trophies on the back of an unbeaten domestic campaign, Europe is the final frontier for Brendan Rodgers and his men.
Champions League qualification was just another step to breaking down that frontier.
Their progression past Linfield and Rosenborg into the Champions League proper was impressive, but their indignities in the competition in recent years have taught them never to look beyond the round at hand. And so, Rodgers fielded his strongest team for the clash against the Northern Irish visitors in the second round of qualification.
Stuart Armstrong, however, had to make do with a place on the bench.
Of course, Armstrong was one of Celtic’s best players last season, becoming a key member of Rodgers’ side. Contract talks have recently put his future at the club in doubt, though, with discussions breaking down towards the end of last month.
Interest from the Premier League appears to have turned the midfielder’s head. Brighton, in particular, are keen on the 25-year-old.
Rodgers denied after Wednesday’s second leg win over Linfield that the dropping of Armstrong was in any way linked to his contract situation, but there can be no denying that there is a sense of malaise around the 25-year-old and his future in Glasgow at the moment.
“Players’ careers are very short and Stuart understands what he has,” Rodgers said when asked whether Celtic is the best place for Armstrong at present. “Everything has to be right. For him, I think this is the best place for him. I know the Premier League inside out and if he wants to go there, then okay – he can still get there.
“But to arrive at the right moment is important – to arrive as an established European player, winning trophies and with more international experience. I understand why anyone would want to play in England as I worked there.
“But to arrive in the best moment you can is the way to do it. I think there’s more development in Stuart and staying at a huge club like this. There’s not many clubs he will find bigger than this.”
Indeed, Celtic is the best place for Armstrong to continue to develop. The truth for the midfielder is that he needs Celtic more than Celtic needs him. The Hoops might even have already upgraded their central midfield options by signing Olivier Ntcham, who has impressed.
Therefore, if there is serious interest from the Premier League in the midfielder, Rodgers should sell him. And with that money they should make a move to sign Patrick Roberts on a permanent transfer.
Roberts is now back at Manchester City having spent 18 months on loan at Celtic. The 20-year-old was a peripheral figure for much of last season, but found his groove towards the end of the last campaign. Had Roberts extrapolated that form out over the course of the whole season, he would have been Celtic’s player of the year.
But having returned to City, Pep Guardiola seems to have no use for him at the Etihad Stadium. Huddersfield Town and Southampton have both been linked with a move for Roberts this summer, with City reported to be asking for as little as £7million for the winger.
For Premier League clubs, that is pocket change. For Celtic, however, that would be their most expensive signing for 16 years.
Nonetheless, a £7million fee would still represent excellent value for Celtic. While Armstrong is undoubtedly an exceptional player with a bright future ahead of him, Roberts is on another level. At just 20 years old, he must be considered one of the most promising young talents in the British game right now.
Jonny Hayes arrived from Aberdeen as something of a replacement for Roberts, but the Republic of Ireland winger isn’t of the same caliber. Additionally, Hayes is a different sort of winger to Roberts.
To accommodate him, Rodgers will have to change his system and style of play in the final third.
Celtic have earned a reputation in recent years for being shrewd transfer market operators, demonstrated by their flipping of Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster among others. Indeed, the Hoops have proved themselves to be good judges of a player’s value and when to sell.
The time to sell Armstrong might be right, particularly if it helps them fund a move for Roberts.