THERE hasn’t been much in the Celtic garden that hasn’t been rosy over the last 12 months. But recently, there has been the growing sense of something that is a little off, and the longer the stench lingers, the more its presence is being felt.
The ongoing contract stand-off between Stuart Armstrong and the club seems to be taking its toll on the player, and manager Brendan Rodgers has conceded the issue is coming to a head.
As Celtic enter what could arguably be described as the most important fortnight of their season as they attempt to overcome Kazakhstani champions Astana to reach the promised land of the Champions League group stages, they could do without the distraction.
But Rodgers is more concerned with how the ongoing impasse is affecting not only his player’s form, but his welfare.
“For the boy, I would want it resolved,” said Rodgers, fresh from watching Armstrong’s replacement in the side, Olivier Ntcham, hit the winner in Friday night’s victory over Partick Thistle. “Because you can see it. You can see it in him. He’s a very conscientious boy, Stuart. He’s not one of these boys who can just play and not think and worry.
“I genuinely think he wants to be here at Celtic and he just wants it resolved. And he probably wanted it resolved six, seven months ago. For whatever reason, it hasn’t. It has affected him. So, I think for him, because he’s a great lad and I love and enjoy working with him, it’s starting to take its toll on him a wee bit. Hopefully we can get that resolved and he can settle down again and find that stability and that form he was in for about seven months of last season.”
The Armstrong situation is far from the only fly in Rodgers’ ointment. A calf strain reduced striker Leigh Griffiths’ involvement at Firhill to a late cameo off the bench, with James Forrest leading the line from the start to little effect.
The forward is almost certain to return to the first XI on Wednesday, but he will be a long way short of firing on all cylinders, leading Rodgers to re-evaluate the potential need to dip back into the transfer market.
“I don’t think there’s any of them 100 per cent, that’s the honesty of it,” he said. “We’re still searching in this period of the season for that fitness. I’d hoped to give Leigh 90 minutes against Partick. But he still had an issue with his calf so we had to change that. He came on and had no ill- effects, so he’s got a nice little period of recovery until Wednesday and will be fit and flying, I’m sure.
“We may have someone new in. That will depend on the next couple of days. If we can have someone registered before, that would be great, but we shall see.
“I am looking for top-class players that can help us going forward. I’m delighted how the young players are developing and improving as we saw against Kilmarnock.
“I have to look at the striker position because I want to go with two and have a young third one. But if the fitness level isn’t there then I have to consider it. I will have a close look at that between now and the end of August because I think James and some of the others do great up there, but if we’ve strikers not available then I may need to look at more cover for us there.”
The fact Celtic conquered Astana over two legs last season does not mean it will be the same outcome 12 months on, even if Rodgers is confident about the improvement in his own side since that tie.
Anyone who witnessed the close nature of the two legs contested last year though will know Astana cannot be dismissed, and Rodgers knows the danger they pose to his side’s European ambitions.
“With Astana, there’s not really much change,” he said. “They’ve one or two players left. It’s going to be a tough game for us. The first game is important. At home, the atmosphere has been absolutely incredible in the Champions League games in particular so we’ll need that on Wednesday night. We’ll see if we can get a positive result to take over there the following week.
“Astana are different to Rosenborg. I thought Rosenborg were a very good team, good structure, they make you work, play a really good style of football and have some dangerous players.
“[Astana] have a little less structure, but have other individual qualities in their players. Twumasi is a boy who is fast, direct, dynamic. I can see why other teams would want him.
“The big striker up front is a handful with his size, awkwardness. But it’s certainly a team we will go and be aggressive with to get a good result.
“We got the better of them over the two games last year with a last minute winner. It won’t be won on Wednesday; it will be over the course of two games. Our approach is to dominate.
“I hope nerves are not a factor, I don’t think it will be. I think we had that in the last round as well, everyone talked about the pressure of going out to Rosenborg, then we made 750-odd passes in the game, were dangerous and played with really good composure. So I don’t see that. Sometimes there is a wee bit of anxiety in the crowd, of course, when you are so close. But we will get incredible support and the team will hopefully perform and take a lead over.”