Simunovic brings an air of as­sur­ance to Celtic camp

Croa­t­ian de­fender a bea­con of op­ti­mism ahead of his team’s cru­cial run of fix­tures

The Herald - Sport - - FOOTBALL - STEW­ART FISHER

“I am now look­ing for­ward to every­thing that is ahead of me. Now I just need to grow from game to game and keep this rhythm go­ing

WEAR­ING a green bob­ble hat which makes him re­sem­ble one of Santa’s lit­tle helpers, Jozo Simunovic is tak­ing part in a photo shoot to pro­mote the Celtic char­ity foundation’s Christ­mas ap­peal. It is an ap­pro­pri­ate choice of at­tire be­cause the club’s Croa­t­ian cen­tral de­fender is con­vinced that this can still be a jolly old sea­son for ev­ery­one at Park­head, rather than just a bleak mid­win­ter.

Start­ing to­mor­row night at Tynecas­tle, three games will roll along in nine days which will test the club’s am­bi­tions and of­fer a bit of con­text to Ronny Deila’s dif­fi­cult sec­ond sea­son. Fol­low­ing Hearts in the League Cup comes a Premier­ship sum­mit meet­ing with ri­vals Aberdeen be­fore a chance presents it­self for Europa League re­venge against Molde. Few Celtic man­agers in his­tory have been as de­fined as Deila by what they achieve on the Euro­pean stage but that is Scot­tish foot­ball circa 2015, where even a do­mes­tic tre­ble wouldn’t en­tirely con­vince ev­ery­one that the club are head­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

Con­se­quently, there is a dan­ger of read­ing too much into Celtic’s do­mes­tic en­coun­ters – the club’s back four sailed to an equally un­trou­bled clean sheet at Mother­well the week­end be­fore their tur­bu­lent evening in Molde – but Simunovic seems as good a rea­son as any for an out­break of fes­tive cheer around Park­head. So prob­lem­atic has the side’s defence be­come since the de­par­tures of Vir­gil van Dijk, to Southamp­ton, and Ja­son De­nayer, to Galatasaray via par­ent club Manch­ester City, this sum­mer that wise men from the East End of Glas­gow are al­ready hail­ing him as their Mes­siah. Such ex­pec­ta­tion, not to men­tion the £5.5 mil­lion sum which Celtic have com­mit­ted to for his trans­fer, rep­re­sents a fair old bur­den to place on the shoul­ders of a player who is just 21 and has only a half cen­tury of first-team ap­pear­ances un­der his belt.

Early days then, but there is some­thing un­de­ni­ably re­as­sur­ing about this 6ft 3in son of Za­greb. Speak­ing 24 hours on from his do­mes­tic de­but against Dundee United, Simunovic in­sists he found it any­thing but easy, even if he felt em­bold­ened enough to sashay for­ward, Van Djik-style, to fire in a cou­ple of shots which threat­ened a goal. How­ever hard it was, it was cer­tainly eas­ier than the month-long spell he had sit­ting on the side­lines with the an­kle prob­lem ac­quired on his full de­but away to Ajax. Al­though he was back train­ing by the time Molde came around, Deila de­cided not to risk his an­kle on the ar­ti­fi­cial turf at the Aker Sta­dium lest he suf­fered a re­cur­rence.

“It took a while to play at Celtic Park, but I loved it,” said Simunovic. “It is beau­ti­ful to be here play­ing in this sta­dium. It feels fan­tas­tic and the fans cheer you on, ap­pre­ci­ate your hard work.

“It was very hard for me to sit out the matches. Thank God I am back and I am now look­ing for­ward to every­thing that is ahead of me. Now I just need to grow from game to game and keep this rhythm go­ing.

“I don’t think the game against Dundee United was too easy. Maybe it looked a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent when you were watch­ing from out­side of the park. But I think that the match showed that if we are 100 per cent on our game, we win 5-0. Ev­ery game that we are 100 per cent, we should win. I had a chance twice to try for shots at goal and I tried. If I get five chances in the next game, I’ll have five tries!”

Three times a league win­ner with Za­greb – the peren­nial win­ners of the Croa­t­ian ti­tle – Simunovic is well versed on life at a club where ex­pect­ing to win is your daily bread. In­deed while Simunovic looks for­ward to a third bat­tle of the sea­son with Molde – Di­namo knocked them out of Cham­pi­ons League quali­fy­ing, 4-4 on away goals, af­ter two draws – his old Di­namo pals are tast­ing life in the rar­efied air of the Cham­pi­ons League group stages, hav­ing beaten Arse­nal then gone down to Bay­ern Mu­nich and Olympiakos. Simunovic in­sists he is not en­vi­ous in the slight­est.

“Di­namo is be­hind me,” he said. “I am here and I am fo­cused on Celtic. I am chuffed for Di­namo, they are play­ing great, even though the re­sults for them just now are not the best. The Scot­tish League is much more pos­i­tive than the Croa­t­ian League. More peo­ple fol­low foot­ball here. It is also two dif­fer­ent styles of foot­ball, but it seems that foot­ballers work much harder here and every­thing is on a higher level.”

There is no time like the present for Simunovic to con­tinue mak­ing a good im­pres­sion. The chance to fin­ish his sea­son in France, hav­ing re­cently been pro­moted from Croa­tia’s Un­der-21s to Niko Ko­vac’s full team, is on his Christ­mas list. “Can I go to Euro 2016? Of course,” said Simunovic. “I be­lieve I will get in­vited and I be­lieve I will go there.”

FES­TIVE SPIRIT: Kieran Tier­ney, left, and Jozo Simunovic help launch the Celtic FC Foundation Christ­mas Ap­peal

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