3 ambitious free contract targets who could immediately strengthen Celtic

By Euan Davidson

March 30, 2021

Squad rebuilds are expensive, as Celtic well know.

When Martin O’Neill came to Paradise in the year 2000, the club went on to spend around £28m on transfers [Transfermarkt]. It was a summer of sea change, with an ambitious new manager and a board who were desperate to stop Rangers pipping us to the title.

You know the rest: it worked, extremely well. Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon, Alan Thompson, Joos Valgaeren, Rab Douglas, Didier Agathe and more went on to have excellent careers at Celtic. Martin O’Neill, in just his first season, won the treble.

It’s strange to think that 21 years on, the idea of spending £28m in one season is ludicrous. Even with inflation, and multiple recessions, the value of the pound and the value of players still dictates that budgeting close to £30m on players still sounds bizarre.

That’s why looking for bargains in this day and age is vital. Player transfer values have ballooned over the last two decades. Yet, there’s value to be had, and not spending on a transfer fee should mean that more money is available for a player’s wages.

Let’s test that theory, and identify 3 upcoming free agents. They might be on the ambitious side, but so was signing Chris Sutton in 2000.

Aissa Mandi in action for Betis / (Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

For the Celtic defence: Aïssa Mandi

“I’ve heard of Aïssa Mandi. Liverpool are meant to be after him”, I hear you say. Yes, reportedly there’s some truth in that. The Real Betis defender is locked in talks with the Andalusian green and white [Football-Espana]. There’s also interest from Serie A giants Inter and AC Milan.

It’s not hard to see why. Mandi has been excellent for Betis this season. Capped 60 times by Algeria, Mandi has played 22 La Liga matches this season, averaging 1 tackle and 1.4 interceptions per 90 [WhoScored?]. An experienced campaigner for both Betis and Stade Reims, Mandi is a combative, smart defender with an African Cup of Nations title to his name.

Should Liverpool et al actually be in for Mandi, then it’s beyond the realms of possibility. However, nothing is certain – we didn’t see the Reds coming in for Ben Davies, after all. With no trophies in club football, Mandi might see his best route to silverware coming via Celtic, if the club were to consider him as an option.

He wouldn’t come cheap. But seasoned campaigners under 30 with La Liga and International experience aren’t ten a penny.

A confirmed Pintsman: Rafael Santos Borré / (Photo by Hernan Cortez/Getty Images)

Rafael Santos Borré

River Plate’s Santos Borré reportedly had a deal in place with Gremio [The Argus], but there’s uncertainty surrounding the Colombian of late.

Prolific goalscorer Borré should really be in more headlines. Twice capped by Colombia, Borré has spent brief spells in Europe with Villarreal and Atlético Madrid. With his contract running out in Buenos Aires, he could be tempted to give the continent another go.

Linked heavily with a move to the MLS [AS], Borré is only 25 but has impressive numbers to his name. In 2020’s Copa Libertadores alone, he scored 7 in 11 matches. In the 21 Cope de La Liga, he’s amassed 5 in 7. Simply put, he likes scoring goals.

North American sides, including Toronto FC, are said to be eyeing a move for the prolific centre-forward. Celtic will need to replace Odsonne Edouard and potentially Leigh Griffiths or Albian Ajeti when the summer rebuild is in full flow.

Again: it’s ambitious. But he might fancy another crack at European football, with a chance to win silverware, just like Mandi.

Isaac Mbenza on the wing for Huddersfield Town / (Photo by William Early/Getty Images)

Isaac Mbenza – a talent in a problem area for Celtic

It’s very, very strange that Huddersfield Town seem destined to lose Isaac Mbenza. The French-born former Belgium youth international has contributed to 13 Championship goals this season from the wing.

Yet, that’s what the Yorkshire side seem set to do. Mbenza can play on either wing or up-front, and represents £4.5m of the £17m worth of talent facing an exit from the Terriers [Yorkshire Live]. It’s a strange set of circumstances, and Celtic could benefit.

After all, interest in the likes of Liam Shaw, Kyle Joseph, Kwadwo Baah, Alfie Doughty and others implies that the Bhoys are looking for bargains in England. You can safely add Mbenza to that list.

Having come through the youth set-up at Valenciennes, Mbenza has subsequently enjoyed spells at Standard Liege and Montpellier before calling Huddersfield home. In the 18-19 season, he made 22 appearances in the Premier League for the Terriers, albeit he only contributed directly to two goals and played less than 1000 minutes. Experience is experience though.

This season, he’s proving what he can do with more game time. Wing depth is a huge issue for Celtic, and it stands to reason that they’d be looking at Mbenza. Also aged 25, there are plenty of good years left in the winger’s career, and he’s undoubtedly a player whose trickery and attacking threat would get fans out of their seats.

READ MORE: The Celtic board better be ready to make some tough decisions.