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Over the years Celtic Park has played host to some of the most prolific goalscorers in Scottish football history; the likes of Larsson, Dalglish, McClair and McGrory having all etched their names into Celtic folklore thanks to their goal scoring exploits.
However, since Henrik Larsson’s departure in 2004 Celtic have struggled to fill the void left by the legendary Swede. Strikers have come and gone, but few have come close to making a similar impact. Until now that is, as young French striker Moussa Dembele looks set to make his mark on the club.
Arriving at Celtic in the summer from English Championship side Fulham as Brendan Rodgers’ first signing, Dembele’s acquisition was met with cautious optimism from the club’s supporters.
Though aware of his talents, fans were desperately hoping he would not turn out like other ‘project’ signings Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde. Both failed miserably during their short spells in Glasgow, amassing just 10 goals between them in 47 league appearances.
However, Dembele has quickly allayed any fears over his ability by knocking in 19 goals in 36 appearances so far this season. Moreover, his all-round performances have been of such a high standard that there has already been speculation linking Dembele with a big money move.
Scottish newspaper The Daily Record reported that Tottenham, Chelsea, and Liverpool are all interested in the Frenchman during the summer, while Chelsea, both Manchester clubs and even Real Madrid are reportedly monitoring his progress. The Express has even gone so far as to estimate that it may take up to £40million to lure Dembele away from Parkhead. While that fee may be on the generous side, it is clear that Dembele’s star is on the rise.
Fortunately for Hoops fans it appears that neither club nor player are keen to part ways anytime soon, with majority shareholder Dermot Desmond recently stating that Celtic are in no hurry to cash in on their young prodigy. The player himself has also gone on record in stating his desire to stay at Celtic Park for the foreseeable future:
“For me, I am here until the end of my contract and for many years. It is not something I think about. I don’t listen to those stories.”
The rise of Moussa Dembele
Strong, powerful, quick, with an eye for goal and an ability to bring others into play, Dembele has all the attributes associated with a top-class centre forward. He can also count French maestro and current Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane amongst his growing list of admirers:
“Dembele is an exciting player potentially for France, he has already shown what he is capable of. He is a very big singing for Celtic . I like to follow the progress of exciting, young, French players, and I know that Bayern, Monaco and Juventus were all looking at him – so it really is big that Celtic managed to sign him.”
Dembele began his career in the youth set-up at PSG before moving to Fulham’s youth academy at the age of 16 in 2012. He made the step up to first-team football just one year later when he made his Premier League debut against West Ham, during Fulham’s ultimately ill-fated 2013/14 campaign which saw the Cottagers relegated.
Relegation to the Championship brought the prospect of increased game time for the young Dembele who went on to score 19 goals across the following two seasons, including 17 last season. This brought him to the attention of several high profile clubs.
Despite interest from around Europe, Dembele chose Celtic Park as the place to continue his development, citing game time, a desire to score goals and win trophies, and manager Brendan Rodgers as key influencers on his decision, in an interview with CelticTV. There was also the added bonus of linking up once again with former Fulham teammate Patrick Roberts, currently on loan at Celtic from Manchester City.
— Celtic Football Club (@celticfc) December 31, 2016
Signed for £500,000, the 20-year-old failed to score in his first three outings for Celtic, including both legs against Lincoln Red Imps. Despite this, Dembele’s early performances for the Hoops were promising enough to suggest he was already becoming a fans’ favourite. His link-up play often assisted in creating chances for those around him, and it appeared only a matter of time before that elusive first goal would come.
And so it duly arrived courtesy of a high pressure 92nd minute penalty against Astana in the Champions League 3rd Qualifying round. Score and Celtic were through to the Play-Off round, miss and Celtic faced extra-time.
To make matters more intense, several Astana players were involved in a melee with the referee, delaying the penalty by two or three minutes. Dembele used this time to compose himself before despatching the spot kick with aplomb.
From that moment he has not looked back.
A hat-trick soon followed against Rangers in the first league meeting between the two Glasgow clubs, as have goals against Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League, proving that Dembele has what it takes to perform on the big stage. 19 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions certainly shows a keen eye for goal.
Old Firm Goal Hero
In addition to his three-goal Old Firm derby debut, Dembele added a further two goals in the remaining two Old Firm derbies of 2016; an 87th minute winner in the League Cup semi final and the equalising goal in the Hogmanay encounter.
A record of five goals in just three games against Celtic’s biggest rivals means Dembele has gone a long way to achieving hero status at Celtic Park.
Dembele is still young, however, and learning the game at the top level – as evidenced by his poor penalty at the Nou Camp and glaring missed headed opportunity against Barcelona in the return game at Celtic Park.
In that game he failed to direct a free header beyond Marc-Andre Ter Stegen from about nine yards out, and, to compound that miss, the away side doubled their lead less than two minutes later, ending Celtic’s spirited fightback. If Dembele is to make it at the highest level he needs to show a more ruthless edge in front of goal and start converting these half chances when they come his way.
It’s not just at club level where Dembele has shown his promise, though. He has also shone for France at all age group levels from Under-16 through to Under-21, stealing the show against England with a stunning brace for France U21s.
His talents have also caught the eye of the illustrious Italian publication Tuttosport. Dembele was nominated for their highly prestigious Golden Boy award which celebrates the best U-21 talent in world football.
It is therefore clear to see that, in Moussa Dembele, Celtic have a true talent on their hands and one who may prove too difficult to keep in the long-term, such is the level of interest he is attracting.
The current Scottish transfer record is the £12.5 million Southampton paid to sign Victor Wanyama. Celtic fans will be hoping that their young talisman heeds the words of Zinedine Zidane, who has recommended that Dembele stay at Celtic for at least another two seasons in order to continue his development.
If he does, and continues to fire Celtic to continued success domestically and in Europe, any eventual move would surely smash that record.
Words: Kevin McCluskie