Erik Sviatchenko: ‘Clean-sheet run is a source of pride’

From left,  Erik Sviatchenko, Jozo Simunovic, Scott Brown and Kolo Toure celebrate after Celtic's Betfred Cup final victory on Sunday
From left, Erik Sviatchenko, Jozo Simunovic, Scott Brown and Kolo Toure celebrate after Celtic's Betfred Cup final victory on Sunday
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When their treble-winning teams of the past are recalled fondly by Celtic supporters, it is inevitably the goalscorers and flair players who dominate their thoughts.

In Jock Stein’s dominant squads of 1967 and 1969, the deeds of Jimmy Johnstone, Stevie Chalmers and Willie Wallace captured the imagination and headlines, while in Martin O’Neill’s clean sweep campaign of 2001 it was Henrik Larsson, Lubomir Moravcik and Chris Sutton who earned the most plaudits.

But no less influential in winning all three domestic trophies were those who laid a solid foundation at the back. For Stein, it was men such as peerless captain Billy McNeill and sidekicks such as John Clark and Jim Brogan, while O’Neill could count on the solidity provided by Johan Mjallby and Joos Valgaeren.

So if Brendan Rodgers is to join his illustrious predecessors as a treble-winning Celtic manager, it will not be achieved simply through the craft and finishing power of players like Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic.

To that end, Rodgers can be nothing but gratified with the reliability of his defence which kept an eighth consecutive domestic clean sheet in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Aberdeen at Hampden as the season’s first piece of silverware was emphatically secured.

The burgeoning central defensive partnership of Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic appears at ease with the style of football demanded by Rodgers, with both players as comfortable at building play as they are at stifling the opposition attack.

It is a pairing which has taken some time to materialise due to the injury problems suffered by Simunovic following his arrival from Dinamo Zagreb in September 2015. But the 22-year-old Croatian is now striking up an eye-catching relationship with Sviatchenko which is keeping summer signing Kolo Toure on the sidelines.

“I read and heard a lot of people talk about a partnership between us in the beginning when Jozo was injured,” said Sviatchenko.

“You must say at this stage, if you look at the statistics, it’s quite good with the clean sheets. I think we complement each other really well but there are so many others beyond Jozo and me in the team. Guys behind us who want to play and are pushing us on.

“A good team needs people breathing down your neck. That’s what all the guys are doing. That keeps us really sharp. The clean-sheet record is a real source of pride. We don’t want to lose any goals.

“It’s a lot to do with confidence. Every time we walk on the pitch we just know that we are going to be difficult to beat. That’s the most important thing. If the opponent has trouble scoring against you you have a great chance of winning. If you have that kind of belief that’s so important.

“We’d spoken before the final on Sunday that this was the most important game we’d played as it was a chance to win the first trophy together. We’ve been together now for a few months and now we can say we’ve done well. Hopefully it’s just a journey upwards from here now.

“We defended well at Hampden. Craig Gordon is at his best in goals at the moment. We always know he will save us if other teams get a chance but defensively we did well and got another clean sheet. I wouldn’t say we are feeling invincible but we are feeling really confident and that is something which grows upon you as a player, as a team and as a collective. It’s always great to be part of history. You always want to be remembered. This is one out of three. We just need to push on to see how good a team we are.”

While Celtic’s improvement on the pitch is clear to see this season, Sviatchenko believes a greater sense of solidarity behind the scenes at the club has also been a significant factor in their success so far.

“It starts in the dressing room,” added the Danish international. “The atmosphere in there great. People have come closer together. We are doing all sorts of things to make that happen. Even though there will always be an element of who you click with best, in general the group is very together.

“That’s an important step towards achieving something – that people want to do well for each other and hope each other succeeds. That’s why this team is succeeding. Because we are close to each other.”

The 25-year-old is thriving under Rodgers and insists he was never worried about his place in the team following the departure of Ronny Deila, the manager who signed him, at the end of last season.

“I wouldn’t say I was concerned,” said Sviatchenko. “I was more looking forward to it as I thought he (Rodgers) might be able to take me to the next step. It’s been great for me as I’ve been involved in all the games.

“He and the backroom staff have been a really good thing for me. They’ve been with me in developing the skills I need to be better at. I’m really grateful for that. It’s the small details that have been the key to my improvement. You also need to figure out what your attributes are. “Then it’s about training every day and finding ways of improving. For instance, I always do video analysis of my games. That’s something that helps me and my team-mates when you go to the next game because then you consciously or unconsciously know what happens. I’ve seen progression from a game where I’ve done something that I need to improve on. When I saw the next game I was just doing something that was better.”