Celtic will be without Reo Hatate as the Japanese midfielder joins the Samurai Blue for the upcoming Asian Cup. Normally, this would be a massive cause for concern with such a key player missing from the squad, but Celtic have grown quite accustomed to being without Hatate.
The 26-year-old has been plagued by injuries this season, and the likes of David Turnbull, Paulo Bernardo and Tomoki Iwata have all stepped into the team in his absence, with varying degrees of success.
It has been Paulo Bernardo who has seen the most success slotting into the side alongside Callum McGregor and Matt O’Riley in the Celtic midfield. The Benfica loanee holds a £6million release clause in his contract, similar to the Jota deal, but should Celtic be looking to activate that option at the end of the season?
Paulo Bernardo may be in the good books of Celtic supporters now, but it wasn’t always a bed of roses for the Portuguese midfielder.
He signed on deadline day from Benfica and featured scarcely for Celtic in his first few weeks at the club. With Reo Hatate picking up an injury early in the season, Brendan Rodgers opted to use David Turnbull more often, and despite the Scot not setting the world alight when he was on the park, Bernardo couldn’t seem to break into the team ahead of him.
One thing that was noticeable was Bernardo’s inclusion in the Champions League games, with the 21-year-old getting the nod ahead of Turnbull on the big European nights.
His previous, albeit brief, Champions League experience with Benfica may have also contributed to this, but it was certainly a strange situation.
When Bernardo was playing, he wasn’t really doing anything revolutionary to warrant nailing down a starting position in the team either. He wasn’t playing badly, but wasn’t performing exceptionally either, something that led to the third spot in the midfield being something of a roulette at times with Rodgers trying many a variety of players in that position.
In the four games before the break, however, Bernardo brgan to catch the eye more and more.
Hitting his stride
The 21-year-old turned in a decent display against Feyenoord in Celtic’s only victory of the Champions League campaign, but it was his domestic performances that followed that really helped him nail down that starting role.
A strong and tidy performance against Livingston at Celtic Park set Bernardo up for the follow-up at Dens Park in what was a must-win game for Celtic ahead of the derby match that would follow. The midfielder opened the scoring in Dundee and paved the way for a comfortable 3-0 victory.
We all know what happened next in the Glasgow derby, as Bernardo lashed home a volley to put the Hoops ahead in the first-half. His performance wasn’t just about the goal, as he showed the grit and fight required to help see the team through the game.
In the most recent fixture against St Mirren, he showed a lot more of his creative ability as he grabbed two assists, the second being an incredible chipped pass to Greg Taylor.
Bernardo is starting to hit his stride at Celtic, but £6million is a lot to pay for a player who is only just hitting form. If he can continue his upward trajectory at the club, however, then paying the fee would be a no-brainer for Brendan Rodgers.
JAMES MCKENZIE // Follow James HERE