Dedryck Boyata has a been a missing man for Celtic at the start of the 2017/18 season. After suffering a knee ligament injury in a friendly against Slavia Prague two and a half months ago, his absence has highlighted a key deficiency in the depth of Brendan Rodgers’ squad. However, he’s set to feature heavily in the weeks and months to come, after the Hoops boss confirmed this week he is again available for selection.
That return couldn’t be coming at a better time.
The next couple of weeks are pivotal in shaping the club’s broad ambitions at the start of any given season into something more tangible. Matches in three competitions against Dundee, Rangers and Anderlecht all follow one after the other, with positives results expected from each encounter. The pressure that Rodgers thrives on is here and there are no second chances.
While their season is very much going to plan so far, drubbing to cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain aside, the side’s defence has come under severe scrutiny from pundits and fans with the Celtic manager having to rely on makeshift selections in the centre of his defensive line.
Domestic football has taken care of itself, as it often does for the reigning Scottish champions, but in Europe there have been ropey moments that must be ironed out if the team are to finish third in their UEFA Champions League group and secure European football after Christmas.
Getting Dedryck Boyata game time ahead of next week’s trip to Belgium is absolutely crucial in that regard, importance of the matches against Dundee and Rangers aside. Going into the Anderlecht tie with Rodgers’ preferred deputy Nir Bitton in defence could be a disaster, as it was away to Astana when the Hoops suffered something of a scare in qualifying, conceding four goals.
It’s true that Boyata has had his own ups and downs in terms of defensive form, but last season saw him make great strides in his Celtic career, finding the kind of consistency under Rodgers that rapidly made him something of a fan favourite in the latter half of their treble winning exploits.
He offers strength and pace that rivals any defender in Scotland and while he has suffered the odd lapse of concentration in Celtic colours, he does show a defensive commitment beyond anything else the Hoops can muster outside of Erik Sviatchenko.
The fact he is a goal threat doesn’t go unnoticed either. The Belgian has scored 10 goals from set-pieces in just 64 appearances, which isn’t a bad return for a defender whatsoever.
Despite his strengths and immediate importance to Brendan Rodgers’ team as a whole, on a personal level, Boyata still actually has a lot to prove as a Celtic player. His injury problems have in many ways defined his two-year spell at the club so far.
Rather shockingly, the Belgian international has only managed to play in 22 of Celtic’s last 78 matches in all competitions, less than a third of the Hoops’ schedule over the last 18 months or so.
For a position that requires consistency and partnerships to be formed, it’s rather poor. Although obviously not his fault, he does need to show the Celtic support he can put together a solid season of starts before truly being considered as a player Rodgers can rely on.
That injury record also brings into focus how his return to the team should be handled. The sensible argument would be that there should be no rush bringing him back into the starting eleven due to a risk of an injury flare up or another problem manifesting due to lack of game time.
However, Celtic don’t have that luxury right now. They need their best defenders back in the team and amassing minutes on the pitch. That’s exactly why Boyata should start the trip to Dundee on Wednesday night in the Scottish League Cup quarter-final.
With all due respect to Dundee, there are tougher tests ahead at Ibrox and in Europe ahead and Rodgers needs to know if Boyata is up to speed enough to replace the likes of the aforementioned Bitton.
A fit Boyata has a big role to play in this Celtic team and if the club are to achieve their lofty ambitions this season they need a settled defence with players natural in the position.
Can the Belgian prove he can be one of those men?