Jozo Simunovic gives Celtic reason to be cheerful

Celtic's Stuart Armstrong holds off a challenge by Mark O'Hara. Pciture: SNS
Celtic's Stuart Armstrong holds off a challenge by Mark O'Hara. Pciture: SNS
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There was little to recommend about Celtic as Kilmarnock preserved their record as the only top-flight team the Scottish champions have yet to beat this season. Yet, with Ajax in town this week for Thursday’s Europa League crunch encounter on Thursday, there was perhaps more for Ronny Deila to be pleased about than might initially have appeared so.

The Norwegian’s team, missing the creative spark of the injured Kris Commons, were stodgier than a bread and butter pudding. Their visitors, meanwhile, were stout. Unabashedly packing bodies behind the ball, their penalty box often resembled Glasgow Central Station at rush hour. In response, there seemed no train of thought from Celtic’s attackers as to how to pick their way through.

Yet, of potentially greater significance was the return of Jozo Simunovic and the attendant assurance he seemed to inject in a Celtic backline that all too often lacks such a quality when the 21-year-old Croatian is not around. Injury has disrupted the early stages of time in Scotland following his £4.5 million move from Dinamo Zagreb in September.

The ankle injury that forced him off only minutes into Celtic’s last Europa League outing surely contributed to the 2-1 defeat by Molde a fortnight ago, a reverse that brought up a desperate double whammy against the Group A leaders that means, in all likelihood, wins at home to Frank de Boer’s men this week and away to Fenerbahce in three weeks will be required to avoid another serious dunt to Deila’s credibility.

Keeping Simunovic fit is crucial to those outcomes, and he showed no ill effects of an injury that forced him to miss out with his country’s under-21 side last week. But this didn’t appear true of Scott Brown in his first appearance after missing four games with a knee problem, though the Celtic captain might have driven his side to victory, with Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald conceding what he thought referee Bobby Madden denied Celtic a penalty when the midfielder went down after looking to dart past Kevin McHattie just after the break.

That was one of few moments to reflect on from a 90 minutes that will rapidly fade from the memory but, for Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon, a first clean sheet in a month made the draw not entirely forgettable.

The 32-year-old was clear on the impact Simunovic has made, his presence appearing to draw better concentration from somewhat erratic central defensive partner Dedryck Boyata – crucial with Ajax up in a matter of days.

“They [Simunovic and Boyata] have done well and, in the last few games together, have looked solid,” Gordon said. “The communication is coming on and I thought we looked a lot more solid against Killie. We coped pretty much with everything that was thrown at us. We restricted them to a couple of shots. To cope with [Josh] Magennis, who is a handful, and earn a clean sheet is one highlight we can take from it.”

Gordon was even willing to bite on the suggestion that Simunovic can be the next Virgil van Dijk, currently impressing for Southampton following his £13m sale on transfer deadline day, even if he offered caveats.

“I think Jozo’s a good player and a good signing,” said Gordon. “He’s so quick and you can see that when he gets back in to make some great recovery tackles. It’s a great attribute for a defender. He has got everything and he’s still a young boy. In training, he looks a solid defender and can be a good player for us.

“I think he can effectively replace Virgil. You will never get another like Virgil, who could also stick a free-kick in the top corner. He was a bit of a one-off. But Jozo can take the ball into the next third and play a pass and he’s quick, just as Virgil was for us. He’s strong in the tackle and decent in the air and, over time, he could be a very big player for us.”