Moussa Dembele only needed quarter of an hour to be one of the grand artisans of the biggest upset on the 2019-20 Champions League. Now only two matches stand between the striker and replicating the achievement of Virgil van Dijk by becoming the second former Celtic first-team player to lift the European cup in as many years.
Having come on as a substitute for Lyon with their game against Manchester City locked at 1-1, he fired a late double to seal a stunning upset and set a date for a semi-final against Bayern Munich.
The striker showed admirable composure to run clear and slow the ball through Ederson’s legs to give the French side the edge, then the instinct to follow up after the Brazilian keeper allowed a tame shot from Houssem Aouar to escape his grasp and bundle another into the net.
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City manager Pep Guardiola can’t say he was not warned: it was Dembele’s second double against City in European football, taking him level with Lionel Messi and team-mate Maxwel Cornet in terms of players most prolific against the Citizens, and confirmed the striker’s knack for playing on the big stage.
His uncanny ability to save his best performances for clutch moments has been noted by no less a figure than Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, who observed back in 2017: “I have played with the greatest strikers, Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Raul, and you knew on the biggest occasions they would win you games – and Dembele is already showing that.”
Now all of Europe knows it – and Guardiola in particular.
Nevertheless, it has taken a surprisingly long time for many to truly appreciate the talents of a man who turned 24 in July.
Dembele’s route to the top has been idiosyncratic, having left his home in Paris in his mid-teens to join Fulham’s academy, then, after breaking into the Cottagers’ first team, rejecting the opportunity to move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs in favour of Celtic, where he took particular delight in scoring against Old Firm rivals Rangers.
“At PSG, I found that there wasn’t much confidence given to the young players,” he explained on Telefoot in 2016. “I would like to play one day at the Parc des Princes, but I’m happy with the choice I made and I feel good at Celtic.”
Indeed, the switch to Glasgow might have been a left-field move, but it was an inspired one as his game developed under the shrewd guidance of Brendan Rodgers.
While the Scottish league might be regarded as something of a backwater, dismissing it entirely has been a costly mistake to make, as Chris Sutton pointed out in the aftermath of Dembele’s heroics.
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Delighted for Moussa Dembele. ????????????Another player developed in Scotland and stupidly shunned by Premier League clubs… he just knocked out moneybags Manchester City… when will clubs south of the border learn…
— Chris Sutton (@chris_sutton73) August 15, 2020
“Delighted for Moussa Dembele. Another player developed in Scotland and stupidly shunned by Premier League clubs. He just knocked out moneybags Manchester City. When will clubs south of the border learn?” he tweeted.
When Dembele left Celtic Park, he did so for a fee of around £20 million (€22m/$26.5m). His value has since doubled during a spell at Lyon in which he has scored 44 goals and set up 13 more in fewer than 91 appearances, while also casting aside any doubts over his fitness, which were a legitimate concern in Scotland.
The Frenchman, though, is not the first major talent to emerge in Scotland in recent years.
Before Van Dijk became a centre-back so classy that he was widely championed for the 2019 Ballon d’Or, having helped Liverpool to Champions League success, it was clear during his two seasons with the Hoops that he was destined for the top. He ended up at modest Southampton before earning his move to the newly-crowned Premier League champions.
These cases are not unusual. Kieran Tierney is justifying the hype that went along with his move to Arsenal from Celtic after an injury-interrupted start, goalkeeper Fraser Forster won England honours after starring, and Victor Wanyama shone brightly, if briefly, with Tottenham.
Away from Glasgow’s east end, there have also been success stories: John McGinn has been a major player in Aston Villa’s return and subsequent survival in the Premier League, having left Hibs for just £2.75m ($3.5m), while Van Dijk’s Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson was famously playing amateur football with Queen’s Park as recently as 2013.
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Talent is clearly in the Scottish game if big clubs are willing to search for it. Bayern Munich have done just that, with 18-year-old Hearts left-back Aaron Hickey set to join 16-year-old Barry Hepburn and 17-year-old Liam Morrison in their ranks. The defender, who is expected to move for a fee in the region of £1.75m (€2m/$2.3m), also had interest from Lyon and Bologna.
Such success stories can only raise the profile of the Scottish game, where Celtic fans believe they have unearthed a prospect to surpass that of Dembele in the form of Odsonne Edouard, another player they picked up after he was discarded by PSG.
For Dembele, the prospect of playing his formative club in the Champions League final must be an appetising one, and while Lyon are once again rank outsiders as they meet Bayern Munich in the last four, having such a big-game striker on their books at least provides cause for hope that their unlikely dream can go on.
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