Celtic's Nir Bitton makes his case for defence as PSG await
Rodgers’ claim that, for all the Israeli gets “slated”, he hadn’t seen a better centre-half in Scotland outside of Celtic was an arresting assertion. The dearth of notable personnel in the league in the position means a case could be made for such bigging up of Bitton.
It is more likely that Rodgers was of a mind to inject confidence into the player before he is sent out to face up to the world’s most expensive strikeforce at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday. The comment might also have owed something to an exasperation over the fragile state of Jozo Simunovic’s body and mind that has placed him in the position of relying on Bitton in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain’s £400 million forward line of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe – a trio that bagged four goals in the 5-0 drubbing they dished out at Celtic Park.
Simunovic was an unused substitute in the 1-0 victory over Ross County. Prior to that, the Croatian hadn’t featured since the 3-0 win over Anderlecht in late September that puts Celtic in a decent position to claim a Europa League berth for the knock-out stages of that tournament. Bitton is not Simunovic, but in recent weeks he has certainly stepped up his command of a position he had not played in before this season. Indeed, in Celtic’s courageous performance that left them unlucky to lose 2-1 at home to Bayern Munich three weeks ago, Bitton’s display bettered that of his senior defensive – and mistake-committing partner – Dedryck Boyata.
The 26-year-old was able to have a bit of fun at hearing of the latest lauding of his new role, riffing on his previous take that he was modelling himself on his good friend Virgil van Dijk. “I told you a few weeks ago I’m a £50m player,” he said. “No, as I said before I’m trying to do my best and still trying to learn the position. Dedryck is talking to me all through the game. I don’t know if he’s lost his voice by now. He’s trying to help and guide me.”
Bitton was particularly taken by the suggestion he is exhibiting a greater physicality than he did as a midfield holder.
“I don’t know if it’s more aggression but as a centre-back you need to jump, you need to be strong, you need to press the strikers,” he said. “As long as the gaffer gives me the chance to play I’ll do my best.”
The best of Bitton will not likely be good enough to repel PSG in midweek, but that has little to do with how green he is in the position. Were he a £50m centre-back, the same would be true.
“As a football player, these are the games you’re waiting for,” he said. “In every respect Wednesday is going to be different conditions from Ross County – very different players and maybe the best front three in the world right now. You just need to face it and you just need to enjoy it as much as you can. Everybody knows PSG are better than Celtic, they showed that in the first game, but we need to compete and show that we deserve to play at this level. Hopefully we will do that and you never know.” In the long-term Bitton will be held in reserve for the role he is performing but with Sunday bringing the Betfred League Cup final against Motherwell at Hampden, that might not be before he earns a winners’ medal for what has proved an admirable contribution in the face of widespread derision over what he has to offer in the backline.
“I haven’t played centre midfield for a long time now,” he said. “If the gaffer thinks I deserve to play centre-back, that’s what I will do. I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying my football and winning and I’m just trying to keep that going.”