‘O’Riley’s Celtic impact shows Rangers what they’re missing’

Matt O'Riley of Celtic celebrates a goalSNS
  • 11 May 2024

Long before he put Celtic ahead with a clinical finish, Matt O’Riley had served notice of his intent to help win the title for Celtic.

It’s not quite done, but the SPFL will be minded to cancel the booking of the helicopter for next Saturday.

Barring a shock, the league will almost certainly be settled after the midweek fixtures. Celtic need a point at Kilmarnock to seal it. They wouldn’t even need that if Rangers fail to beat Dundee 24 hours earlier.

In a season where so much went wrong for a largely uninspired Celtic, O’Riley represents everything they got right.

Bought for small money at a young age in the days of Ange Postecoglou, he’s one of the poster boys, a gem they found in the rough in English League One.

Inside the first 10 minutes, he had a free-kick that curled just wide. Not long after that he got on the end of a slick move involving Daizen Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi, and narrowly failed to find the target.

Rangers’ midfielders were on the same pitch but not on the same plain as the 23-year-old.

His movement wasn’t picked up, his goal threat wasn’t snuffed out. When you play with fire, you normally get burnt.

Just after the half-hour, O’Riley banged in the opener, his 16th goal of a season that has also produced 17 assists.

To win a title, you need stand-up characters, you need guys with personality and leadership and influence when things are getting hairy.

The fact that O’Riley has scored four times in his last six league games shows his worth, which is considerable.

Yes, he went quiet for a while with all the chat of Atletico Madrid making a play for him, but when his club needed him in the run-in he has delivered. Too many of his counterparts in blue have not.

‘Clement only had charge of very light brigade’

O’Riley is the one of the differences between Celtic and Rangers. Philippe Clement doesn’t have anybody remotely like him.

Clement gets the bulk of his goals from James Tavernier – many of them penalties – and Cyriel Dessers – who’s nobody’s idea of the complete striker, despite a handsome goals haul. He gets precious little from the area where O’Riley roams.

Tom Lawrence? Three in 32 this season. John Lundstram? Two in 52 – or two in 76 if you want to include last season.

Lundstram, who had one of his worst days in a Rangers jersey with an unfortunate own goal and a lamentable decision that earned him a red card, is more defensively minded.

But those stats still shine a spotlight on one of the areas where Rangers are deficient.

Dujon Sterling? A terrific prospect, but he has one goal in 34. Fabio Silva, five in 22. Not great numbers for a player with his kind of reputation, which has taken a monumental buffeting since moving to Scotland.

In the painful absence of Abdallah Sima (who’s only on loan), Rabbi Matondo (who has talent but is inconsistent) and Danilo (a long-term absentee), Clement turned to his bench.

Needing not just one goal to level it, but two to win it with a one-man disadvantage, he was, admittedly, clutching at straws.

Kemar Roofe appeared. Roofe has scored twice in 23 games.

Scott Wright was called for. Wright has two in 30 this season and zero in 34 last season. This was the charge of the very light brigade.

Ross McCausland came on, but McCausland is only a kid and has scored three times in 38 games. Nicolas Raskin, another substitute, has one in 28 and one in 44 since he joined the club.

A lot of stats but not a lot of goals from Clement’s attacking options.

It was instructive that in desperate need of somebody to punish Celtic, he left Todd Cantwell on the bench for the entire game. That was a telling snub.

‘Rodgers’ words must be acted on if Celtic are to progress’

Lundstram’s red card was, of course, the game-changing moment.

When one of your most senior players is making decisions like the one that saw him take Alistair Johnston out by the ankle, then you know you’ve got problems.

Rangers existed in the match after that, but didn’t threaten.

O’Riley, again, put one just wide after his footwork took him away from a couple of defenders.

His penalty miss was one of his few black marks. Jack Butland saved his team, but the lack of a character to capitalise on it at the other end meant it was to no avail.

As the second half meandered on, you had to remind yourself that Celtic were still only one goal to the good. They were dominant, but wasteful.

You couldn’t see them losing the lead, but adding to it would have taken all stress out of the situation. They weren’t good enough to do it.

They should have had more goals and a procession at the end, but they didn’t.

Celtic’s game management was poor, which was a reminder that though they will win the league, and deservedly so, they still have a lot of improving to do. Some holes to plug with better players for next summer.

Rodgers might start talking again about getting quality into the club, his plaintive cry during the January window.

If Celtic are to kick on, his words need to be acted upon this time. He’ll hope O’Riley is part of the push domestically and in Europe next season, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he exited to a bigger league in the coming months.

With a lusty transfer fee (if it comes) and increased guaranteed riches from the Champions League, Celtic could be in an even better financial position than they already are.

Their fans are entitled to believe that with ambitious, but not bank-busting spending, things won’t be as close in the league next season as they have been this.

Clement has done an excellent job in making it close, but just didn’t have the tools to see it through.

Rodgers was measured in the aftermath. There was no talk of the league being won or fun being had, but after the latest round of the one-sided game that is Rodgers versus Rangers, everybody now knows how this is going to end.

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