Moussa Dembele has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. There was no doubting his potential when he made a Bosman move from Fulham to Celtic last summer, but the speed at which he has developed has been formidable.
Numerous big clubs sought his services as his contract at Craven Cottage wound down, allowing him to depart for a mere £500,000 compensation payment. Monaco, who have shown their eye for young strikers in recent seasons by bringing through Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappe were particularly taken by the young Frenchman, yet Dembele showed his level head as he chose a more gradual route to the top.
The opportunity to develop in Scotland under Brendan Rodgers at Celtic was not one to be missed. Not only was there the prospect of regular first-team football in Glasgow’s east end, there was also the chance of playing in the Champions League.
After being given the opportunity to make a transition into the Bhoys’ squad by gradually replacing the prolific Leigh Griffiths, Dembele has established himself as the Scottish Premiership’s best player, netting 32 goals in the process. Rodgers also attracted Scott Sinclair, formerly of Manchester City, and Champions League winner Kolo Toure to Parkhead, yet the France Under-21 star has eclipsed both men.
Such has been his level, he holds genuine aspirations of being named in Didier Deschamps’ France squad to face Luxembourg in World Cup qualification and Spain in a friendly. Given Les Bleus’ strength in depth in attack, that would be a monumental achievement for a young man playing outside of the mainstream.
It has been Dembele’s taste for the grand occasion that has been especially impressive in his rookie year in Scotland. “My best play comes in the big games – I can’t explain it,” he commented.
He became the first player to score a hat-trick in a league match against Rangers since 1973 in the first meeting between the two Old Firm rivals this season, and when they faced off in the League Cup semi-final at Hampden, Dembele again snatched the headlines by striking a dramatic last-minute winner.
‘Relentless’ has been the catchphrase of Rodgers since he took the Celtic hot seat last summer, and perhaps no individual sums up the club’s taste for success more than the Paris-born youngster.
Patrick Roberts, on loan at Celtic from Manchester City, is impressed with the improvements he has seen from Dembele, who he played with during his youth days at Fulham.
“I know his game inside out and I know what he’s like,” the Englishman explained to Goal.
“He’s got bigger – I’ll tell you that!” he laughed, reflecting on how the attacker once was.
“He used to be skinny as when he first came to Fulham, but he’s built himself up. He could always finish, even when he was signed from PSG.
“He’s now got the strength aspect to his game, and the team ethic, and I think the manager here’s brought that on him as well. He’s pressing and he didn’t do that at Fulham because he was just a young boy, but the manager has brought him on leaps and bounds. He’s a top player and got a big future.”
Indeed, Dembele’s all-round qualities have been formidable. He is not a pure No.9 content to allow others to work for him, he has embraced the industry that Rodgers demands of his players and now leads the defensive effort with his pressing – a trademark of the Northern Irishman’s teams.
But it is his abilities in front of goal that were required to catch the eye of a plethora of sides interested in making a summer swoop. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City will all have scouts present to watch Dembele in Sunday’s Old Firm clash, with the Frenchman seeking to maintain an incredible record that has seen him score in all of his side’s three previous matches against Rangers this season.
“If you look at his goals - particularly in Old Firm games - they’ve all been different. Headers from corners, turning Philippe Senderos at Parkhead. He’s not a one-trick pony and I like that about him,” Rangers’ record scorer Ally McCoist told the Daily Record.
McCoist might be an admirer of the forward’s talents, but he has poured scorn on the suggestion he is worth £40 million – a sentiment not exactly rebuffed by the player himself.
“Am I worth £40 million?” the Frenchman told the press this week. “You tell me, I don’t know. A price is a price – I can’t tell you if I’m worth £40m or £50m, £30m or £20m. I just concentrate on my game. It feels great to be called a £40 million striker, because it means I am not doing badly, I think?
“I just focus on my season and at the end I will go on holiday and enjoy that. We just need to keep going forward.”
This attitude, which was present on the day he signed and boldly proclaimed his ambition to become the best striker in the world, is reflective of his manager’s persistent quest for perfection, and even after scoring a treble in his debut against Rangers he is hungry for more.
“It was the day my Celtic career took off,” he reflected. “I hope it is going to be more than three goals this time. I could have scored more that day. If I scored three, then I could have scored five. But I still wouldn’t be happy because I had scored five.”
This constant desire to improve, though, may ultimately be what drives him to leave Celtic in the summer. He has hit the glass ceiling in Scotland within months of arrival, and with big names circling it would be little surprise to see the club cash in as they attempt to further their development.
Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster are just some of the names in recent history who have departed Celtic to excel in the Premier League. Dembele may just become the biggest star yet, though.