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There have been plenty of moments to define Brendan Rodgers’ time as Celtic manager. The Northern Irishman has only been in Glasgow for just over a year, but he is already well on his way to establishing a legacy at the East End club. But even by that standard, his side's 5-0 Champions League qualification win over Astana at the start of the season set a new benchmark.
Rodgers himself called it an “outstanding team performance,” highlighting how the Scottish champions dominated against their Kazakh opponents from start to finish. Indeed, it was a complete display, hinting at the impact Celtic could make in the group stage when they get there. This could be a last 16 side in the making.
James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Tom Rogic and Scott Sinclair were the headline acts, with the four having a hand in each of Celtic’s five goals on the night. But the performance of central midfielder Olivier Ntcham was just as impressive, controlling things from his position in the middle of the pitch. And it wasn’t the first impressive display from the Frenchman in hoops either.
Indeed, Ntcham has very quickly become a key figure in Rodgers’ starting line-up, displacing Stuart Armstrong from the team as the Scotland international continued to wrangle over a contract extension (which was finally signed and sealed on Friday). Costing £4.5 million, Ntcham is Celtic’s most expensive signing of the summer so far, but that could still make him a shrewd addition.
“To make progress over the next couple of seasons, particularly at the European level, it is important for us to have those physical attributes in there,” Rodgers explained in light of the signing of Ntcham from Manchester City last month, highlighting the qualities he will bring to the fold and why Celtic so badly need them.
“Olivier is a player I have been looking at for near on eight months now, so I was aware of him in the second half of last season and before that. He’s a player I always felt could work well for us. He has everything: he’s 21 years of age, he’s got a little bit of experience in playing senior football, but now he really needs that opportunity to go and flourish.
“Mentally, it’s just a case of him taking the next steps in his career, coming to play at a huge club with big demands and opportunity to play in the Champions League. For us, it’s a very big signing. The market out there is hard to get players of that quality, and it will hopefully prove to be a very good signing.”
The early signs have been extremely positive, supporting those who claimed Celtic had got themselves a a bargain in Ntcham. He is proving himself to be the best signing made by the Hoops since the £2.7million capture of Virgil Van Dijk four years ago. The Dutch centre back is now considered one of the very best in the Premier League and Ntcham could follow a similar career trajectory.
In fact, Manchester City’s willingness to let the 21-year-old leave the club for so little this summer doesn’t say a lot about Pep Guardiola’s faith in the youth system at the Etihad Stadium.
Ntcham has excelled at every youth level for France, also impressing over the course of a loan spell at Genoa as a teenager.
He's been starring for the France under-21 side during the current international break, and is one of the stand-out players in this side along with his club team-mate Moussa Dembélé.
Both started the recent game against Montenegro, and though Dembélé couldn't get on the score-sheet, Ntcham put in a composed display behind the forward as part of the midfield unit.
Yet Guardiola still couldn’t find a place for him in his plans at City, but Celtic have gained where the Manchester side have lost.
The signing of Ntcham was significant because it signals a return to the successful transfer strategy of a few years ago at Celtic.
The Hoops built up quite a reputation for themselves as shrewd operators of the transfer market, with the signing of the likes of Van Dijk, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper (who has since lost his way since leaving Celtic) backing up this billing.
Ntcham’s addition followed on from the shrewd signing of aforementioned compatriot Dembélé last summer, with Celtic paying just £500,000 in training compensation to sign the striker.
Now, he is considered one of the brightest young forwards in the game, with essentially every elite European club monitoring him. When the Scottish champions eventually cash in, it will in all likelihood be for a record fee.
It’s still early in Ntcham’s Celtic career, but there is a sense that he could have the same sort of impact on the Hoops’ midfield as Dembélé had on their attack last season.
He is still young, so that should be factored into his development, but in almost every way, Ntcham’s signing was significant. His performances are further illustrating that.