CELTIC manager Neil Lennon is desperately trying to establish a first-choice centre-half pairing ahead of the forthcoming Champions League Group H fixtures against Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax.
Restricting Dundee United to few chances is one thing, keeping out the likes of Neymar, Messi and Balotelli is quite another. However, in Celtic’s 1-0 win at Tannadice on Saturday Virgil van Dijk certainly looked more like the commanding, ball-playing centre-half we were told to expect when he joined the Parkhead club from FC Groningen.
It looks as though Lennon might be leaning towards pairing the 22-year-old with Efe Ambrose, whose stock soared when he missed the away leg of the Champions League play-off against Shakhter Karagandy. Van Dijk and Steven Mouyokolo endured a difficult baptism in Kazakhstan.
However, the former has recovered some poise and found some much-needed confidence in his outings since.
Ambrose has also responded to being dropped for the first Shakhter game in a positive manner. Mouyokolo, meanwhile, was left on the bench on Saturday.
Lennon made a point of praising the centre-half partnership of Ambrose and Van Dijk after the 1-0 victory on Saturday. “I think this was one of the best games I have played [for Celtic] – but I have not played many,” said Van Dijk. “It’s good to be playing again after injury.”
Van Dijk suffered a foot injury shortly after joining Celtic in a £2.6 million move from Groningen. “Definitely the best is still to come from me,” he added. “I’ve never been 100 per cent fit. It’s coming and I also need time to adapt to the Scottish game and my team-mates.
“It needs a little bit of time.
“First of all I want to be fit and then I know what I’m capable of producing. That’s rule number one – then I can see what comes from that.”
The Celtic supporters saw Van Dijk’s attacking qualities on Saturday as well. With one slaloming run early in the game he broke into the box and then sent a shot just too high and wide of the goal. It would have been an early contender for goal of the season. However, it is in defence where Lennon will need the Dutchman to be at his best when Celtic return to the Champions League group stage later this month.
Unsurprisingly, Van Dijk is excited by the prospect – with the chance to return to his homeland to play Ajax an added bonus. The draw, he says, more than justifies his decision to leave the Dutch league for Scotland. “Yes there were those who doubted the move,” he admitted. “People said that the league was not so good, but they don’t watch the Scottish league.
“I’m playing here now and I’m very happy. I think the Champions League shows I made the right move. I haven’t heard back from Holland yet but I think it’s the right choice.”
He stressed that he was no fan of Ajax when growing up – “My team was always the team I played for, and that wasn’t Ajax,” he said.
While he has known success when playing for Groningen against Ajax at home, he is still to taste victory when playing them in the Amsterdam ArenA.
“At home it was possible to win,” he noted. “Ajax is always a team that likes to play good football.
“We have to have confidence in our own game and then everything will be alright.
“They lost [Christian] Eriksen and [Toby] Alderweireld in this window – they were two of their best players last season so that’s not good news for them.”
As for finishing ahead of Ajax in the group in third place – the target many believe Celtic need to aim for – he replied: “You never know in the Champions League – everything is possible. We have to stick together and work hard.”