The new Drogba, Celtic's greatest since Larsson: Dembele set to be unleashed on Barcelona

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The Bhoys produced their best piece of transfer business in nearly 20 years by bringing the young Frenchman to Parkhead


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Celtic only signed Moussa Dembele in July but it's already only a matter of time before they recoup their biggest-ever transfer fee for the France Under-21 international.

The forward's arrival at Parkhead slipped strangely under the radar given the interest that was being displayed in him by several top European clubs, including Monaco and Juventus, yet the developing attacker was attracted by the lure of Brendan Rodgers, whom he believed was the man to take his game to the next level.

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So far, 20-year-old Dembele has not been proven wrong, as proven by increasing interest from the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.

Though playing on the periphery of the big time with the Bhoys in the Scottish Premiership, his exploits have already made him one of Europe’s most discussed young forwards. And for Celtic, who signed him for just £500,000, he is threatening to be their best piece of transfer business since they acquired Henrik Larsson for £650,000 in 1997. The Swede subsequently played a key role as Barca won the Champions League in 2006, and now his successor is aiming to put an obstacle in the way of the Catalans repeating that feat 11 years later.

“I see Moussa as the next star of the France team,” club-mate Kolo Toure gushed to RMC.

Attaining the kind of level achieved by the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud will be no easy task, yet Dembele is going about his work in the correct manner. Not only is he scoring against Celtic’s weaker rivals domestically, he is doing so on the bigger stage, too.

Initially kept out of the Hoops team by an in-form Leigh Griffiths, he secured his place as a starter with a stunning performance against Rangers in the Old Firm derby, becoming the first player to net a league hat-trick in that fixture since January 1966.

In the Champions League he has found the net against Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach, while his sole blot on his Celtic record to date was a penalty miss at Camp Nou. On Wednesday evening, however, he will have another opportunity to make his mark against Barcelona.

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Arguably his most eye-catching display came for France’s Under-21 side against England in a friendly. Dembele scored two excellent goals in a 3-2 victory, and suddenly critics in his homeland started to sit up and take notice of his scoring exploits, which until that point had been coolly welcomed.

Born in Pontoise in the north west of Paris, Dembele’s footballing education started with PSG, where he signed on in 2004 and played his first season as an eight-year-old. He departed the French capital - where he counted Kingsley Coman as a team-mate - for England and Fulham aged 16, and it was at Craven Cottage he really started to shine.

He played twice for the Cottagers in the Premier League during their relegation season of 2013-14, and a couple of years later he scored 15 times as a teenager to tentatively catch the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

It was Celtic, though, who won the race to sign him. “We’re fortunate to have him,” Rodgers admitted after 3-3 Champions League draw with Manchester City. “He was coveted by a number of teams but his agent is a clever guy.

"Does he go to a so-called better league and sit on the bench and not get so many games, or does he come to a big club with an opportunity to develop and invest some time into his development and then step up if that’s what he wants to do?”

Thankfully for Celtic, he chose the latter option and produced one of his best matches to date against Pep Guardiola’s side.

“He really bullied the back four, but he’s more than that – he’s got a wonderful touch, you saw his agility for the third goal. He’s a huge talent,” Rodgers added on that September evening.

His raw strength and pace have earned him comparisons with Didier Drogba, and certainly the bullish manner in which he conducts himself means that these are not unflattering. 

Rodgers has worked with both strikers, having coached under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, and sees a similarity. 

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“I worked with Didier Drogba at Chelsea and I think Moussa’s of that ilk,” he said. “What I see in Moussa is that he’s a big-game player. He really comes alive in the big games. 

“He has a belief. He said he wanted to be the world’s best player when he came here and we shall see, but he is making nice strides, isn’t he? He is a boy who can get to the top but there are some things to work upon yet.”

Attitude is key, and while Dembele harbours a fearsome appetite to reach the top, he is smart enough to be aware that it is a process that will take time – Rodgers has branded it “responsibility and a maturity” – and he has been shrewd enough to surround himself with people who appreciate that.

“He is a great player and a great talent. What I like even more about him is his mentality. I spent a lot of time with him and he is someone who listens a lot,” former Arsenal and Liverpool player Kolo Toure said.

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“He’s surrounded by good people. He has the same agent he had when he was a young boy and he trusts him.

“Moussa is also very focused in training. He doesn’t have a big head, despite his young age. I have been really impressed with him.”

Dembele will move on when he thinks it is the correct time to do so. That may well be next summer and, given the bounty on his head, Celtic are unlikely to stand in his way.

As more clubs gain an interest, the striker’s price has inflated from a reported £15 million to £40m, though not all pundits have been impressed.

Writing in The Scottish Sun, former Rangers striker Kris Boyd branded such a fee “utterly ridiculous”.

“But before Celtic fans start on me, here’s a simple question I’d ask anyone who raves about the Frenchman: why is Dembele in Scotland?” he continued.

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“He was up for grabs and available in the summer, so why didn’t one of the big clubs snap him up at that point?”

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Boyd, though, appears to have overlooked the long-term ambition of the striker, who was not content to fade away on the bench in the Premier League. Instead, he is now set to star in the Champions League against Barcelona once more.

“£15 million? That’s the price of his big toe,” Rodgers joked in September.

If the Frenchman plays a pivotal role in a repeat of Celtic’s famous 2012 win over the Catalans, all of a sudden the Northern Irishman’s quip will seem so much more realistic. 

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