MATT O’RILEY will stand up to be counted as Celtic launch into the conclusion of a tumultuous season.

The champions have failed to spark on a consistent basis with points carelessly shed, including two at home back in August against today’s opponents St Johnstone.

The erratic displays have been a mystifying mix of wonderful and woeful with a mesmersing 7-1 triumph over Dundee followed by a miserable 2-0 loss from Hearts at Tynecastle, admittedly in bizarre circumstances with VAR dictating events on the field.

Gifted midfielder O’Riley has been caught up in the rollercoaster and his form has visibly dipped in the recent malaise with Brendan Rodgers’ side failing to convince on a match-by-match sequence.

SCREEN STAR…Matt O’Riley is in focus after his superb goal in Celtic’s second-half 3-1 revival against St Johnstone in Perth in December.

However, former Hoops goal hero Chris Sutton is quick to defend the stylish Danish international who has been accused in some quarters of having his head turned by reported interest from Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in the January transfer window with talk of a possible £25million move sealed in the summer.

The one-time England international forward said: “I’m not buying it. Look, it may be the case Matt O’Riley isn’t quite hitting the heights he reached in the first half of the season.

“It was always going to be tough for him to maintain that level as he set such a high bar. There was going to be a drop off at some point.

“You have to take into account it’s not just O’Riley that’s seen a dip – the entire Celtic team hasn’t clicked often enough since the turn of the year. Or more of the season, in fact.

“O’Riley hasn’t been helped by the inconsistency of selection, either. Celtic can’t make excuses for injuries when they have a cast of thousands in their squad.

WALKING ON AIR…Matt O’Riley defies gravity as he scores Celtic’s stoppage-time against Motherwell at Fir Park in September.

“But we know the recruitment in the summer and January wasn’t good enough. O’Riley has had to carry the midfield on his own at times, with Reo Hatate out long term and now Callum McGregor on the sidelines.

At times it’s been Paulo Bernardo in there alongside him. Previously it was David Turnbull. There have been occasions when McGregor has pushed up and it’s been Tomoki Iwata sitting deeper. The one constant has been O’Riley and it can take its toll.”

Sutton, speaking to the Daily Record, continued: “I still believe O’Riley has been one of Celtic’s top performers this season. And I don’t think for a second his form is related to the January transfer talk.

“If anything, that stuff should inspire him. When you look at his performances in the Champions League, in the home games against Atletico Madrid and Lazio, in particular, you’d expect more interest in him in the summer.

“If a big-money offer comes in then I don’t think fans would grudge him a big move. A lot could depend on his performances from now until the end of term, though.

LET US SLAY…Matt O’Riley leaves St Mirren without a prayer with an early strike in the champions’ 3-0 win in Paisley just after the turn of the year.

“I don’t think he’ll lose focus. He seems a level-headed lad and didn’t throw the toys out of the pram when Celtic refused to sell him.

“The Atletico Madrid bid obviously wasn’t good enough and he was too important a player to let go at such a crucial time.”

Sutton added: “It’s more of a coincidence his numbers have slipped slightly in terms of goals and assists, but there’s no doubt he’s got a huge part to play in the run-in.

“You are looking to your key players to stand up and be counted at this time of the season – and O’Riley definitely falls into that category.

“It’s going to be all hands on decks after the international break.”
O’Riley goes into today’s match against the Perth outfit with 11 goals and 15 assists to his name during a campaign that has seen his value rocket from the £1.5million the Hoops paid to MK Dons in January 2022 – undoubtedly one of the club’s best recruits in recent history.
* DON’T miss the unbeatable match report from Celtic v St Johnstone this afternoon – only in your champion CQN.
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