The stars all seem to be aligning for Celtic’s trip to Norway this week, especially the situation their opponents find themselves in.
Rosenborg have only a theoretical chance of advancement from Group B, the 1-3 and 2-5 defeats at home to Leipzig and Salzburg, either side of a 3-0 loss in Austria, all but sealed their fate.
The Norwegians haven’t really looked interested in European football ever since Leigh Griffiths’ late winner at Celtic Park in the opening game of the group, with focus instead on ensuring their 4th straight league championship (their 22nd in the last 30 years). The title race was in reality decided with a 2-1 away win to 2nd placed Brann in late October which took Rosenborg five points clear with three games left. Now, the domestic focus has shifted to the Norwegian cup final against Strømsgodset on Sunday.
The cup is A Big Deal in Norway. Its translated name is ‘The Norwegian Championship in Football’ and was first played in 1902, three years before the country gained independence from Sweden. The King’s Trophy – the highest achievement in any sport in Norway – is still given to the cup winners rather than the league champions. It is the one game a year where people who are not really interested in football sit down to watch a domestic match – a truly national occasion. Without diminishing Celtic’s own game with a trophy at stake on the same day, the Norwegian cup final is a much grander occasion.
With such a big day looming, there would be no surprise if Rosenborg rest players in a game only three days prior, in a now almost irrelevant competition. The players that do go on the pitch might also struggle to keep complete focus and intensity for the full 90 minutes.
Even with Celtic’s almost admirable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Europe, they could hardly have picked a better time for their third trip to Trondheim in 18 months.
It’s great timing, apart from one thing: the re-emergence of Samuel Adegbenro.
The Nigerian winger came to Norway in February 2015, signing with Viking just a couple of months after his 19th birthday. A direct, tricky winger with explosive pace, he quickly overcome the big cultural and football changes involved in moving to Norway directly from Nigeria and became a key player at Viking, one of the biggest clubs in the country.
With Viking in great economic difficulty before the 2017 season, the squad was stripped of most of their best players. The almost impossible task of keeping them up was given to 34-year-old English coach Ian Burchnall. He had been assistant head coach at Viking the previous two seasons, moving there after being Brian Deane’s assistant at Sarpsborg 08 since 2013.
When the board came to Burchnall in the summer of 2017, with Viking bottom of the table, telling him that they had to sell Adegbenro, Burchnall was clear:
‘I said that if you sold Samuel, we were giving up our last chance to survive relegation’.
The answer was merciless: either Adegbenro is sold, or Viking will be deducted points due to its financial situation, and they would be relegated anyway.
So Adegbenro swapped the worst team in the top flight for the best, joining Rosenborg for around 15 million kroner (ca. £1.4 million).
Burchnall, who this summer succeeded Graham Potter as head coach of Östersunds FK in the Swedish top flight after Potter took over at Swansea, is in absolutely no doubt about how good Adegbenro is:
‘I would say he is the best player in Rosenborg. I would say that he is the best player in the league. I said that when I managed him and I’d say it now’.
Adegbenro scored only eight minutes into his Rosenborg debut, coming on as a substitute to give Rosenborg a 1-0 win in Amsterdam against Ajax in the Europea League playoff (Rosenborg having been knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers by Celtic). Then with Ajax leading 2-1 in Trondheim and close to winning the tie on away goals, Adegbenro again grabbed two late goals as a substitute to seal Rosenborg’s place in the Europa League group stages.
‘When he joined Rosenborg he was on fire straight away, scoring against Ajax and then setting the league alight’, Burchnall says.
2018 was set to be Adegbenro’s true break-out season, but only two games into the Norwegian league campaign injury struck. It would take almost 7 months before he was back on the pitch. According to Burchnall, that absence is the only reason why the winger is still in Norway:
‘If he had had a full season this year Samuel would have gone to a bigger league already. He would have really kicked on again this year, in Europe as well’,
Having worked with Adegbenro for two and a half seasons, Burchnall know his playing style well:
‘His best strengths are 1v1 and he is comfortable coming inside from the left and driving centrally as well. He’s a bit different to some of the other Rosenborg wingers, like de Lanlay and Helland, that Celtic have met so far because he’s so dangerous in those 1v1 situations and has the pace and strength to go past players. He gives a lot of creativity to the team’
Adegbenro has only played just over five full 90 minutes (spread over 8 appearance) since he came back from injury, but has already got 3 goals, including against Brann in the title decider and versus Salzburg at home in the last Europa League round.
Burchnall’s assessment of him as a very quick, strong and technical winner is clearly seen in another stat from the games he’s played after his return: he’s attempted 58 dribbles, 30 of them successfully. That translates to on average 11 attempted dribbles and 5.7 of them successful, per every 90 minutes played. These are impressive numbers, especially coming so quickly after his long injury spell.
Looking at the location of Adegbenro’s dribbles since his re-introduction into the team, it is clear that it will be mainly up to Mikael Lusting, no stranger to Lerkendal stadium, to deal with the him. Rosenborg will surely try to create opportunities for their Nigerian winger to challenge Lustig one on one, and Celtic will have to make sure their Swedish right-back is supported closely and restrict the space Adegbenro has to accelerate into.
Burchnall is adamant that Adegbenro is ready for a much better league than Norway, but that in addition to his injury absence he would have been hindered by the fact that he is as yet un-capped, making a work permit for England in particular a problem. With such restrictions usually slightly more relaxed in Scotland and with questions around their left-wing position, Celtic fans might want to keep a close eye on Adegbenro during Thursday’s game for other reasons as well.
But will the Nigerian even play? While he’s been in good form since his return, Burchnall is clear on the need for him to have more playing time to truly get up to speed. Even with the cup final on Sunday, could Rosenborg coach Rini Coolen be tempted to give Adegbenro another run-out against Celtic?
For Ian Burchnall, there is no doubt about the impact that could have: ‘If Rosenborg are going to have a good opportunity against Celtic they need a player like Samuel on top form, and if he is that may cause Celtic a real problem’.
The full interview with Ian Burchnall, including how he might have ended up been coaching in the SPFL this season, will be in the next edition of The Cynical, our free quarterly online magazine. The most recent edition can be downloaded here