Every revolution has its icon. What helps Ange Postecoglou is that the pin-up boy during Celtic’s steep rise was plucked from the Japanese market which is fundamentally understood by their manager. All the data analysts and scouting algorithms in the world are irrelevant when a manager knows the specifics of a player who should fit his regime.
Postecoglou has been at the helm as Celtic have gathered that crucial football commodity: momentum. But Kyogo Furuhashi’s seven goals in as many starts means supporters have a new cult hero. Celtic have become exciting again, with Kyogo at the epicentre of this relentlessly attacking – and highly entertaining – approach. Postecoglou promised Kyogo would add “something special” to Celtic. So far, so good.
At 26, it seems surprising for now that Kyogo had spent his entire career in the J-League before Postecoglou, who coached Yokohama Marinos, applied some local knowledge. Bare statistics demonstrate Kyogo’s output has improved year on year. Glances at his performance levels – Kyogo can operate as a central striker or wide – show a player with wonderful movement, a graceful touch, selfless work rate and finishing ruthlessness that belies youthful looks.
Celtic fans suffered just one season of domestic disaster but this spell felt like an eternity given earlier, recurring success. Kyogo’s arrival has afforded those in the stands a new subject for adulation just when such a focal point was needed.
Suddenly, there is hope. Celtic travel to Ibrox on Sunday with what would have felt an impossible dream in early August. Rangers have spluttered through the opening weeks of the season as Celtic, from such a low starting point, scrambled their way back towards a point of respectability lost during the 2020-21 campaign.
The glaring danger for Rangers, and they have it completely within their want to prove otherwise of course, is that they peaked last season. Celtic’s rejuvenation already is causing Steven Gerrard and his players to grasp for air. Being hit with Covid-related issues before a dismal draw in Armenia on Thursday was not particularly relevant in isolation but a year ago, such notable disruption did not occur. Postecoglou must believe stars are aligning earlier than could reasonably have anticipated.
The closing stages of their Europa League tie in Alkmaar would have reduced Celtic’s followers to watching from behind sofas, but Postecoglou’s team still secured aggregate victory. Kyogo’s early goal afforded them crucial breathing space. Later, as Alkmaar laid siege to Joe Hart’s goal, there were lucky breaks; that Celtic are even benefitting from them once more is significant.
Hart retains the capacity to blunder – see Alkmaar’s opening goal – but is a level above Celtic’s previous goalkeeping options. Like Kyogo, that personnel switch has given Postecoglou a comfort not possible during fraught early weeks in his role. “We have gone through a lot in the last month and a bit,” said the Australian. Recruitment, initially sluggish, has been ramped up. Postecoglou’s coaching credentials have been enhanced by the rise in performances by unsettled or stop-gap players.
Celtic’s trip to Ibrox is intriguing as a barometer for how much they have actually improved. Twelve goals without reply against St Mirren and Dundee leads to whooping and hollering but there remains an element of an U16 team taking on the U8s in such Premiership fixtures.
Kyogo cost Celtic £4.3m, Hart is still only 34 and has 75 England caps; players of this ilk are way beyond the fiscal reach of every Scottish club bar two. Given the turmoil before Postecoglou arrived, it is perhaps fair enough that progress to the Europa League proper is celebrated, but Celtic should always have the capability of beating a team on AZ Alkmaar’s moderate level.
The last time Celtic appeared at Ibrox, the hosts cantered to a 4-1 win. Celtic have only played six domestic games since. The pendulum swing has been sharp in nature, yet it exists only in relation to perception if Celtic tumble in front of their oldest foes once more. Rangers, in front of their own supporters, can legitimately view this fixture as an opportunity to emphasise their superiority. After all, 25 points separated the Glasgow clubs when last season closed.
Celtic’s defence remains an obvious weak point. Rangers’ back line was never as solid as statistics from last season appear to show. How Kyogo will be handled and perform is a huge theme. Including, it is safe to assume, for clubs on the other side of the border who will already have been alerted by the Vissel Kobe man.
Recent history tells us the winner of the season’s first Old Firm fixture becomes champions. Postecoglou will not pay much attention to that statistic – his downplaying of matters in a ridiculously fevered environment is actually very appealing – but this marks a key moment for the 56-year-old. Faith in his 5ft 7in No 8, a beacon of light from the Far East, has thus been well founded.