Much in football comes down to timing, and for Moussa Dembélé and Leigh Griffiths theirs has been fairly rotten early on this summer. It’s at this time of year, when Champions League fates are meted out, that Celtic’s season is defined. These qualification games matter more than any other to the Hoops, but they might have to play them without Dembélé and Griffiths.
Both strikers are currently suffering from injuries, with the former expected to be sidelined until September at the earliest. Griffiths’ issue is less serious, but the Scotland international still wasn’t fit enough to feature in Wednesday’s goalless home draw against Rosenborg. He might not make next week’s second leg either.
Tom Rogic started as a False Nine of sorts against the Norwegians, but not even a player of the Australian’s quality could act as a focal point for Celtic’s attack. Brendan Rodgers’ side looked toothless, devoid of ideas on how to make the system work without a designated centre forward to lead the line. It was worrying, from a Hoops perspective.
Of course, it’s not that Rodgers doesn’t have another striker to call upon. Having returned to Celtic Park from a loan spell at Pogoń Szczecin last season, Nadir Çiftçi is available. He is of reasonable pedigree, too, having proven himself at Scottish Premiership level, persuading the Hoops that he was worth £1.5 million just two years ago. Yet Rodgers just isn’t interested.
Çiftçi, even with Dembélé and Griffiths sidelined, can’t get anywhere near the Celtic first team. But why not? Sure, the 25-year-old isn’t good enough to command a regular starting spot, or maybe even a place on the bench when everyone is fit and ready, but the unfortunate truth for Rodgers is that not everyone is fit and ready. Far from it. Playing Çiftçi up front would be a far better option that using Rogic, a midfielder, in that position.
Rodgers couldn’t have picked Çiftçi for Wednesday night’s game against Rosenborg even if he wanted to, having left the Turkish forward out of his European squad. But that’s precisely the point – why was he left out of that squad when the injuries to Dembélé and Griffiths were already known about? Rodgers should have foreseen this problem. It’s an oversight that he hasn’t.
“It was a little bit frustrating we couldn’t get the win, but 0-0 is never a bad result in Europe. It’s important that, if you can’t score, you don’t concede,” he said after Wednesday’s result, preferring to look at the positives of the goalless draw.
“We were up against it a wee bit without strikers, but they had a level of control and have shown an ability to be patient and wait for the openings.
“You can see they are a good side. Champions of their country with a bit history. But they will also know that they’ll need to come out a little bit more than they did when they are at home when they need to take more initiative. That opens the space. I think we scored more goals away from home last season, so yes it’s evenly balanced, but we’ll be another week fitter.
“We’ll look forward to the second leg and it should open up for us. We’ll see with Leigh. Even if he was available for this game, he couldn’t have played due to a calf strain. We’ll see how he is leading into next week.”
If Griffiths isn’t ready, however, Celtic could find themselves in a very difficult situation. Particularly away from home, they will need someone capable of taking an opportunity in front of goal when it comes their way. The Hoops were full of goals last season, posing a threat all over the pitch. Scott Sinclair, for instance, finished the campaign with 25 goals to his name.
Perhaps that’s what Rodgers was counting on to get his team through. The problem, however, is that without a focal point, there is no potency elsewhere on the pitch. The system is reliant on someone leading the line. It’s not that Celtic play off either Dembélé or Griffiths, it’s just that if you eliminate them both the system doesn’t work as a system anymore.
Not so long ago, Celtic were targeting a place in the last 16 of the Champions League, but it’s in the qualification stage where one of the biggest challenges of Rodgers’ career at the club so far is forming.
Goalless and striker-less, the Hoops must find a way through. They can’t call on Çiftçi to help them do so, though. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter. This time, they could use him.