Never mind the flavour of the month, Matt O’Riley has been the talk of the town for the whole season at Celtic.

A standout for the club - passing both the ‘eye test’ on the pitch and statistically – the Denmark cap has been a revelation under Brendan Rodgers, as predicted. Stewart Ross wrote a great article yesterday highlighting the improvements made by the midfielder under the returning manager this campaign, making him a person of interest for clubs such as Inter Milan and Girona in the process.

However, this article is not about Celtic’s main man in this campaign, but rather, his understudy, who goes by the name of Paulo Bernardo. Signing on deadline day of the summer transfer window last September, the Portugal U21 stalwart made the move from Benfica to Celtic on loan, with an option to buy inserted into the deal. Of course, these two sides have had recent history, with a similar deal having been struck in 2021 for the arrival of Jota from the Portuguese giants to the Scottish champions.

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Despite having impressed in a couple of games in the Champions League – especially in off-the-ball situations – Bernardo had been a bit-part player for Rodgers until midway into December. Having suffered two defeats on the spin in the league, it was clear that the midfield needed freshening up, with David Turnbull not taking his opportunities in the starting line-up.

On the face of it, a game on December 23 at home against bottom-side Livingston does not sound like a stand-out game – at least on paper – but it may be the game that changed the trajectory of Bernardo’s career at the club. Yes, he did not score or assist on either of the goals, though he contributed to Celtic’s much-needed 2-0 win versus David Martindale’s struggling side by being in the starting line-up.

If Livingston wasn’t the breakout, then his next two games certainly were. Breaking his Celtic goalscoring duck on Boxing Day, Bernardo scored the first of three goals at Dens Park, in what was an impressive performance from the central midfielder. His second consecutive start, the continued absences of Reo Hatate and Odin Thiago Holm due to injury and illness respectively gave the 21-year-old a golden opportunity to build some momentum ahead of the upcoming Glasgow Derby just a few days later. Would he be trusted to start alongside captain Callum McGregor and O’Riley? Or would Rodgers elect to go for the more experienced option in Turnbull?

Thankfully for Celtic, Bernardo played – and scored - in the number eight position for Rodgers’ side against Phillippe Clement’s rejuvenated Rangers at Celtic Park. There was nothing shallow about Celtic’s number 28 that day, as a new star was born on Glasgow’s east end. Of course, any single goal or performance against will make you a hero in the eyes of the Celtic supporters, but it was a performance for the ages from Bernardo. His half-volley in the first half allowed for an eruption of noise around Celtic Park, which set the home side up for a monumental win against their biggest rivals. He would match his effectiveness going forward with his hard work off the ball and in the tackle, as the midfielder burst onto the scene with a dominating display, that in turn announced his arrival as a major player at Celtic.

Bernardo would keep up this form against St Mirren three days later, setting up both O’Riley and Greg Taylor for two assists on the night. Last Sunday – his first appearance since the winter break – he scored an exquisite chip against Buckie Thistle, his third goal since joining the club. What a way to make your first cup appearance as a Celtic player, regardless of the opposition.

The Benfica academy graduate is a man very much in form, judging by his numbers over the last five games. Three goals and two assists are proof of that, with his place in Celtic’s first team essentially a guarantee at this current point. Not unlike one of his midfield partners, Bernardo has been putting up O’Riley-esque numbers despite playing in a deeper role compared to his counterpart.

It may be a negative factor to touch on, but Celtic may need to plan for life after the aforementioned O’Riley in the midfield. Over the past month, Serie A giants Inter Milan and high-flying Girona of La Liga have been reportedly interested in the 23-year-old’s services. Even though there is next to no chance that O’Riley will leave the club this month – given his importance – the summer is a completely different story. Alongside the likes of Cameron Carter-Vickers, Reo Hatate and Liel Abada – amongst others - O’Riley may perhaps want to take his talents elsewhere this summer, especially if he is called up for Denmark for the forthcoming European Championships in Germany.

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Who better to potentially replace the player of the season so far than the individual who seems to be drawing inspiration from his teammate? Despite playing in the centre of midfield just in front of McGregor, Bernardo has been deployed as a number 10 before in his career and possesses the abilities and talent to thrive in this position going forward. Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the standout discoveries concerning the 22-year-old has been his ability to press the opposition when not in possession of the ball. This graft has not gone unnoticed, with Celtic’s option to buy clause looking all the more inspired as Bernardo’s appearances continue to increase for the club.

With Hatate currently with Japan at the Asia Cup and Turnbull in the last few months of his contract, it looks as if Bernardo will have a clear run in the midfield from now until next month at the very earliest, barring injury. Achieved through merit thanks to his performances over the festive period, you get the feeling that Bernardo is only going to improve from here on in at Celtic.

If he does that, that option to buy may become an inevitable transaction come the end of the season…