Jozo Simunovic believes he is ready-made to handle the pressure facing the Celtic players this week as they go into a critical and potentially defining phase of their season.
The Croatian central defender finally made his home debut for the Scottish champions in Sunday’s 5-0 win over Dundee United, which took them four points clear at the top of the Premiership and eased some of the strain caused by the Europa League defeat in Molde last week.
Celtic now face three pivotal games in three different competitions with tomorrow night’s League Cup quarter-final at Hearts followed by Saturday’s home league fixture against nearest challengers Aberdeen and then the must-win Europa League return meeting with Molde at Parkhead five days later.
Simunovic, back in the side after missing seven games with an ankle injury following his debut away to Ajax in mid-September, is eager to have an extended run in Ronny Deila’s side.
The 21-year-old insists he is unfazed by the level of scrutiny placed on Celtic, having joined them from a Dinamo Zagreb outfit so dominant in his homeland that they have won the last 10 Croatian League titles.
“This situation is normal for Celtic and the players who come here know that,” said Simunovic.
“Every team faces scrutiny and you have to learn how to handle this pressure. This is a part of our work.
“It is the same pressure as we had at Dinamo Zagreb. You are two times better than the players at other teams in the league but, when you come to something better like Champions League or Europa League, you can sometimes have a problem.
“That is normal because you maybe don’t have as much incentive in your own league. Dinamo is much better than the other teams in the Croatian League, far, far better.
“Players know this and they hear it. But they cannot spend their time thinking and pondering this fact.”
Having been signed for a sizeable fee, reported as at much as £5.5 million, Simunovic faces expectations from Celtic supporters that he can resolve the defensive woes which have plagued Deila’s side, especially in Europe, over the past 18 months.
“Put the money [paid for me] aside,” he said. “For me, that is not an issue. I believe I can really help the team. What I want to see is how I can help my team-mates and benefit Celtic.
“I cannot feel too much pressure. The defence is not just the back four players, everyone scores goals and everybody loses goals. The whole team feels that.
“I came here to play and I am going to contribute as much as I can to these next three games, especially. I want to give my best.
“I don’t know about other players, I can only speak for me. But we have good talks before the games and I don’t feel extra pressure, you can’t live like that. It’s all in your head, so you clear your head and go for it.
“It was very hard for me to sit out the matches when I was injured so soon after joining the club. I was working really hard during that time to get back and get fit.
“But I came here to Celtic to play matches and I love to play, so it was not easy to sit on the sidelines and watch the rest of the team.
“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.
“It took a while for me to play at Celtic Park, but I loved it on Sunday. 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.”
Simunovic already has a success over Molde on his CV, having played in the Dinamo Zagreb side which defeated the Norwegian outfit on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate draw in the third qualifying round of the Champions League this season.
“It was especially hard to watch from the sidelines last week when the team lost in Molde,” he added. “But we can fix the situation in the Europa League. We still have a chance to qualify.
“Of course we can beat them next week at Celtic Park. I actually felt we were better than them in Norway.
“We played and had most of the ball, but sometimes the best team doesn’t always win,” he added.
• Simunovic was speaking at the launch of the Celtic FC Foundation’s 2015 Christmas Appeal.