BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CELTIC legend John Hartson has described Saturday’s Old Firm derby as ‘a Leigh Griffiths game’ as he backed the irascible striker to star against Rangers on his way to usurping him as the last Hoops marksman to hit a century of goals.
The 26-year-old looks to be winning his battle for fitness ahead of the visit of the Gers after injury forced him to withdraw from international duty.
Hartson believes Griffiths’ importance to Brendan Rodgers’ side cannot be underestimated after lauding the way he has developed – mentally and physically – to meet the demands of leading the line for Celtic.
It is a pressure Hartson knows well, having scored 109 goals in five years at Parkhead – and the expectations are never higher than when Glasgow’s great rivals collide.
Never one to shirk a battle, the big Welshman used to thrive in the cauldron of derby-day and he fully expects Griffiths to rise to the occasion.
“Big games like the weekend – that’s a ‘John Hartson game’ and that is a ‘Leigh Griffiths game’ now,” smiled Hartson. “He rightly believes he is the main man.
“The way Leigh has taken on that responsibility and has scored goals – becoming the match-winner – is terrific.
“I’ve seen many players go to Celtic or Rangers and fail. They cannot live with the pressure. Celtic need to win every game, if they draw it is a crisis – everyone is up in arms, the Internets goes mad, you have the football phone-ins.
“From Monday to Thursday the following week, people hammering Celtic for drawing with a Kilmarnock or Dundee United. Celtic have to beat them and dealing with the pressure – it’s like playing for Man City or Man Utd – you’ve got to win.
“And there have been times when things have been a little flat and he has been the one to step in and score a great goal. He has improved massively due to the demands of playing for Celtic.”
With seven goals in nine games already this term, Hartson believes it is only a matter of time until Griffiths hits the 100-mark – and he knows it.
“He has 74 goals . . . I keep an eye on that because I am the last player to score 100!” he joked. “You look at Leigh, 40 goals last season, so if he stays fit and playing then I wouldn’t have thought breaking 100 goals this season would be a problem.”
Griffiths’ continued hold on the sole attacker spot at Celtic is all the more impressive following the club’s signing of Moussa Dembele from Fulham in the close-season, a marquee capture for the Scottish champions.
Despite Griffiths scoring 40 goals last term, many expected Dembele to breeze into the side, either as the Scotland star’s strike-partner or as a direct replacement.
However, the undoubtedly gifted Frenchman has found the former Hibernian and Livingston striker utterly immovable – particularly after the Hoops’ chastening 1-0 defeat in Gibraltar in Rodgers’ first competitive match in charge.
“In the first game of the season, out at Gibraltar, they played him out on the right and he looked like a fish out of water,” recalled Hartson. “I said on television ‘Brendan has to play him down the middle – he scored 42 goals last season!’
“It’s like asking Henrik Larsson to play out wide. You just don’t do it. You don’t take your best asset and put him out wide. When you are a natural goalscorer you don’t need to work hard. It comes easy.”