Simunovic brings an air of assurance to Celtic camp
Croatian defender a beacon of optimism ahead of his team’s crucial run of fixtures
“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