THE January transfer window may ultimately offer more relief than fascination for Celtic followers. It is not guaranteed to provide even the former, however.
The month began with all manner of excitable reports that Arsenal were planning a “£15 million raid” to prise Virgil van Dijk from the Scottish champions. It is now coming to a close without any clubs having contacted Celtic to declare a concrete interest in one of their players. Yet, Van Dijk himself, who has looked an English Premier League player in waiting since he quickly bedded in following his £2.6m summer move from Groningen, isn’t simply assuming that the transfer window will end quietly for him.
“I don’t know,” said the 22-year-old centre-back, who expects a “tough” game when his team take on Hibernian at Easter Road today. “You never know what can happen [in the window] but I’m feeling all right here. I’m having a great time, enjoying every game and every day I’m at Celtic. We’re proud of [our nine-game domestic run of clean sheets]. We do a good job as a team, but the back four and defensive midfielders are playing well. But the thing making me most proud is still being unbeaten [in the league]. I’ve never experienced this before. It’s new for me, but I’m enjoying it.”
The acclaim now being showered on Van Dijk, a powerfully built and skilful defender with such good awareness that he just seems to have it all going on, serves to illustrate that instant judgments should be avoided at all cost. After one game for the Glasgow club, he was being declared a misfit. The defensive calamities last August that resulted in Celtic losing their Champions League qualifier in Karagandy 2-0 to opponents who didn’t seem to fashion any chances were certainly extreme. However, less so than the fallout from the encounter in which Van Dijk was paired with other new arrival Steven Mouyokolo.
“It was a rough start, a difficult game, but we’re doing a good job now. With the nine clean sheets, it’s a good feeling. I [feel I’ve become a better player] because I played all the Champions League games and learned a lot but I’m learning in the Scottish League as well because it’s so different for me. It’s a different way of playing football, I’ve had to learn a different way to defend. At Celtic you have a lot of the ball, unlike at my old club when you didn’t, so I’ve learned a lot.”
Van Dijk has learned that the personal can aid the professional, with the Dutchman’s respect for Efe Ambrose the man making the pair the core of a defence that is now only four clean sheets away from equalling a 100-year-old defensive record for consecutive domestic shut-outs. “I’ve not experienced bonding with a partner this quickly in my career before,” he said. “The first game I played was with Mouyokolo but, after that, everything went well with Efe. He’s a friend of mine now, on the pitch and off it. It’s all good. If you have a good bond with each other away from football it helps when you’re playing. I think you can see that.”
With doubts over the futures of contract-ponderers Georgios Samaras and Joe Ledley, and Stefan Johansen the only player recruited thus far in the window, the Celtic support are pained at the prospect of Van Dijk not giving at least a couple of season to the Glasgow club – as did summer departures Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson. Celtic manager Neil Lennon isn’t blinded to any possibilities. “I would imagine so,” Lennon said, when asked if he would expect to soon be having to fend off suitors for Van Dijk. “I’ve got to be honest, realistic about things. He’s been so consistent at 22, he’s so mature the way he plays and the way he handles himself as well. He’s had a fantastic season so far, a first season he’s really adapted quickly. There’s no doubting his talent.”
The January transfer window has a talent for throwing up late surprises, Lennon maintained. “You never know what will happen in the last week” he said. “Particularly the last couple of days. They are very fraught either way, in terms of players going out or getting players in. We are, though, confident our bigger players as it were, our bigger assets, will not be leaving in this window.”
While last year Hooper stayed because of the impending Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus, Lennon is of a mind that the club will be “a bit more vulnerable to bids coming in” without such an “incentive”. And yet Lennon considers his players have pull as they attempt to complete a feat of astronomical proportions made possible through not having lost in the first 21 Premiership games of a 38 games season.
“It would probably be the best thing I’ve ever done [if we were to stay unbeaten]. I think it’s almost an impossible thing to do. And we are just over the halfway mark so there is a long way to go. Just one bad day and that is it. So it’s a real test for us to keep them fit and healthy and keep them at their peak both mentally and physically. But we are enjoying that challenge. The unbeaten run is a great incentive for the opposition [as well as] our players. There’s just that extra edge to each game now. The clean sheet record as well. Not that they need any extra motivation but it is there if it’s needed.”
January is unlikely to elapse without a new signing appearing in the title holders’ colours, Lennon has ventured, with Johansen set to be in the squad for the trip to Leith today but more likely to play when Celtic host Kilmarnock on Wednesday. “He’s trained all week and he’s trained well,” said the Celtic manager. “We gave him so time off at the weekend to go home and sort some personal stuff out so he’d be in the squad at the weekend. Maybe a wee bit early for him, but certainly we’ve got Kilmarnock in midweek and St Mirren next week so he’ll definitely be in contention for a starting place even for those two games.”